In July 2010, Dave Boles hit a hole-in-one at Blackhawk Golf Course – one of the best moments of the avid golfer’s life – with a portable oxygen tank strapped to his back.
Boles, of South Strabane Township, has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that did more than interfere with his golf game in recent years.
It nearly killed him.
In September, Boles, 68, underwent a double lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian hospital.
He spent nearly two months in the hospital, lost 70 pounds, and takes close to three dozen pills a day, including anti-rejection drugs he will take for the rest of his life.
So instead of golfing, mowing grass and working on tractors, which Boles enjoys, he finds himself fighting to regain his strength and return to a normal life.
“I’ve always had determination, and I’ve always been independent,” said Boles, a former semiprofessional baseball player and squash player who worked at AT&T for 32 years. “I’ve never liked to ask anybody for help, but I’ve gotten a lot of support and I’m grateful for it. Going through something like this changes you.”
His ordeal began three years ago when his primary care physician detected crackling in his lungs during a routine physical. Boles was sent to UPMC’s pulmonary department, where tests confirmed he had IPF, a progressive lung disease that causes lung tissue to become thick, stiff and scarred over time. As the lung tissue becomes scarred and thicker, the lungs lose their ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. As a result, the brain and other organs don’t get the oxygen they need.
“I had never heard of IPF before. Doctors have no idea what caused it,” said Boles, who initially refused to go on oxygen. “That was a tough idea to get used to. I thought about all of the things I wanted to do and I thought, ‘You really want me to go on oxygen?’”
Instead, he started sucking on Halls cough drops every day to subdue his constant coughing and to help his labored breathing as his condition worsened. A task like changing an oil filter that normally took Boles minutes ended up taking hours.
He finally relented and started taking oxygen throughout the day and night.
Boles also wasn’t sure he wanted to go through major surgery when doctors recommended a lung transplant, the only way to save his life.
“My son, David, got upset that I was thinking about not getting the transplant and he told me that he wanted his kids to have a grandfather,” said Boles, who has four grandchildren. “I finally convinced myself that it’s what I needed to do.”
Boles was placed on the hospital’s transplant list in June.
He didn’t have to wait long. He and his girlfriend, Belinda Porter, were at dinner at a local restaurant on Sept. 22 when Boles got the phone call that a pair of lungs that had become available.
The young donor, from the Pittsburgh area, had been killed in an accident, a fact that Boles – a registered organ donor himself – has struggled with.
“I’m thankful to him. When I was at UPMC, someone from my transplant team gave me a card and said if I wanted to fill it out, they would send it to the donor’s family,” said Boles, in tears. “I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to say. Maybe later. Maybe down the road.”
Following the 11½-hour surgery, Boles spent five weeks on a feeding tube, without food and liquids to prevent infection (lung transplants are especially prone to infection because the lungs, unlike other organs, are constantly exposed to air and bacteria), and he underwent physical, occupational and speech therapy. In speech therapy, he learned how to swallow so that water doesn’t go into his lungs, a common occurrence in lung transplant patients that results in pneumonia.
He ended up in ICU three times for complications during his recovery, and returned home on Nov. 12.
Boles knows the healing process will take some time, and he continues to improve. There is no more gasping for breath as he climbs steps or walks around the house. His goal is to return to golfing at least once a week and to cut grass, but he has no timetable.
“I want to get back out on the golf course,” said Boles. “I want to golf again.”
Right now, 116,544 people are waiting for an organ, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For information on organ donation, visit organdonor.gov.