Breaking In a New Set of Lungs

lindsey-21History enthusiast to run Ky History Half five months after double lung transplant
By Kevin Hyde

Several runners will be breaking in a pair of new shoes during the first annual Kentucky History Half Marathon on Oct. 3. But you can be sure only one will be breaking in a pair of new lungs.
That’s right. Lungs.

Just this past May, Steven Lindsey of Elizabethtown, Ky., an active member of that city’s Ancestral Trails Historical Society and long-time historical reenactor, underwent a double lung transplant.  He had been suffering for years from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a disease characterized by scarring of the lungs that ultimately robs a patient of the ability to breathe.
IPF is generally terminal.

“The only cure … is a lung transplant,” Lindsey says.

Playing Gov. Helm

Before first experiencing problems five years ago, the former smoker felt fortunate when it came to his health. Along with his wife, Lisa, he enjoyed camping, hiking, swimming and cycling. In 2003 the two began doing historical reenactments and since then have portrayed Gov. and Mrs. John L. Helm at various events.

Lindsey chose Helm, who died Sept., 8, 1867—just five days after being sworn in for a second round as Kentucky’s governor—for several reasons.

“He was an interesting fella, yet he does not get a lot of notoriety,” Lindsey says. “His accomplishments were spectacular. Not only was he twice governor of Kentucky, he was president of the L&N Railroad during the construction of the main stem. He was an accomplished attorney and statesman for more than 40 years, and an advocate of the people of Kentucky his whole life.”

Like Lindsey, Helm also called Elizabethtown home and, as it turns out, is even related to Lindsey through his mother, a sister to Lindsey’s great-great-great-great grandmother.
Then there’s one other reason to choose Helm: “If you’re going to pretend that you are someone else,” Lindsey explains, “it is more fun to pretend you are someone rich.”

A Persistent Cough

Before his diagnosis, Lindsey estimates he took less than 10 days of sick leave over 30 years at the University of Louisville. “The idea of some life-threatening, debilitating health issue seemed totally alien to me,” he says.

The first sign of trouble began in the summer of 2010 when Lindsey developed a persistent cough. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed an antibiotic. But he still became breathless after very little exertion. Further tests revealed “ground glass opacity in both lung bases,” often indicative of chronic lung disease.

“At over 50 years old and more than 30 pounds overweight, I brushed it off as simply ‘old, fat guy gets short of breath when he walks somewhere,’ ” Lindsey says. “Over the next several years my condition seemed to be relatively stable, but in retrospect I think it is more accurate to say my condition worsened very slowly.”

In April 2013, Lindsey’s doctor suggested he might have IPF. Pulmonologists soon confirmed it.
“Unquestionably, this news came as the most shocking and disturbing information I have ever received,” Lindsey says. “In our rational minds we all know life is finite, but we push such thoughts from our minds and believe that we will live forever.

“Then, one day, something happens that makes us know this is not the case. For me, it was this news. It changed my attitude about a lot of things.”

Double Lung Transplant

Initially, Lindsey was apprehensive about the procedure that offered his only chance for survival. “I began studying IPF and lung transplant surgery and learned that average survival for IPF patients was five years from diagnosis, and that average survival for lung transplant patients was just over five years. I thought, ‘If I am only going to live for five more years, what is the point in going through the surgery?’ ”

Still, at his doctor’s urging, in spring 2014 he joined the waiting list for donor organs.
Over the next year, his condition worsened rapidly. When Lindsey met with Dr. Allen Ramirez, medical director of the joint Lung Transplant Program at the University of Louisville and Jewish Hospital, he knew his situation was bleak. But Ramirez encouraged him to trust that lungs would come along—and he was right.

“Exactly one week later, he called to say that lungs were available and that I must decide if I wanted them,” Lindsey says. “He told me that the organs were ‘high risk,’ to which I replied, ‘What does that mean?’ He indicated that the donor had been incarcerated, but the organs showed no evidence of any disease or damage and I should accept them.”

Lindsey’s double lung transplant was performed by Dr. Victor van Berkel on May 8. Just 12 days later, he was released from the hospital.

After stopping by UofL to thank his concerned co-workers, Lindsey and his wife drove to his mother’s house in Elizabethtown. “I told her that I had learned a new trick,” Lindsey says, and then “bounded up the stairs to her living room. That was the first time I had been able to do that in nearly two years.”

History Half Marathon

Since then Lindsey has been working to regain his strength. He goes to physical therapy twice a week and walks about six miles per day.

“I am constantly amazed at my progress, as are my doctors,” Lindsey says. “I am able to do things that have been impossible for several years. I have already started back to work part time and I plan to enroll in classes this fall.”

For his next feat, Lindsey plans to participate in the Oct. 3 Kentucky History Half Marathon—just five months post-transplant. Presented by the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS), it’s the first half marathon that celebrates Kentucky’s history while supporting KHS’s educational programming and services.

The highlight of the 13.1 mile course is the “Mile of Remembrance” through historic Frankfort Cemetery. With sweeping views of the Kentucky River and the city, participants will run by the final resting places of iconic pioneers Daniel and Rebecca Boone, as well as numerous other notable Kentuckians.

Lindsey will, of course, come to Frankfort dressed like his own favorite Kentucky icon. He says his involvement with historical reenactments and interest in history in general has helped him keep going during serious times.

“My recovery has been and continues to be so dependent on the support from my family and my many friends, among them the members of Ancestral Trails Historical Society,” Lindsey says. “I can’t thank them enough.

Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, says, “Making people aware of how much history affects their daily lives is an important part of what we do at the Kentucky Historical Society. History both inspires and challenges us. History also can help inform decisions that better people’s futures.

“Mr. Lindsey is an excellent example of how much history can mean to a person and how it can play a huge role in their life. We’ll be rooting for him every step of the way as he tackles the KY History Half Marathon and adds that feat to his amazing list of accomplishments!”

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