After five months in a hospital bed, now comes the hard part

(Editor-at-Large Walter Wasacz writes a weekly column on life in Hamtramck.)

By Walter Wasacz

Last month, we reported the uplifting story of Hamtramckan Vladimir “Joe” Vujic, who received a lung transplant after months of waiting for the right match.

He first waited for a match at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, then was transferred to Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, where there is a national transplant center.

We have an update, and it’s in the words of Vujic himself, who has been keeping a journal of his illness and recovery for members of “Joe’s Army,” a support group made up of family and friends. We’ve edited the report for space, but the words are all Vujic’s.

Take it away, Joe:

“Yes, it’s finally true! After our interminable gut-wrenching wait, I have a new lung. Last time I wrote I had just had a ‘dry run’ (a possible match that didn’t pan out) on Christmas Eve.

“The nurses and staff were all telling me not to be too disappointed and that this happens quite often. But for some reason, I reacted quite differently. Having been in that horrible state of limbo for so long, I felt like “All right, coach is finally putting me in the game.”

“And sure enough, one week later I was the New Year’s baby of lung transplants for 2011, or so I’m told. So for all of you who don’t want to hear the details (some of which are gory) let me encapsulate the situation.

“So far so good.

“Because I was a hard match and my donor only had a good left lung, I only have the one along with what’s left from my old right one. But there are advantages to this. Although I won’t be running any marathons, single lung transplants have significant improvement in long term survival chances. So I’ll take it.

“I came out of surgery in the ICU and soon after saw my beautiful nieces Krissy and Maria. That was a true joy! Seeing their faces did me more good than all the meds I was on. So this is what ICU for six days was like: tests, x-rays, blood gases, tests, try to walk a few steps, vitals, more tests, change the IVs, in and out of sleep, rinse and repeat. No food, no water for four days and only a liquid diet since then. Two very unpleasant bioscopies without anesthesia.

“Then they transferred me to the step-down unit. Here is where they try to get you out of the hospital as soon as possible and was probably my toughest week in this entire ordeal.

“The big challenge was the walking. You have to walk 20 laps of the ward before you can get out. And when I’ve talked about how well I was doing laps, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was hopping out of bed and strolling about on my own. Even today I can only manage about a dozen steps without help. We used four wheeled walkers that support a lot of our weight. It’s more like a stand up cart that you push
with your legs.

“There was a point at which, when they were waking me every two hours to check my BP that I realized the numbers were consistent and would remain so. After
nearly five months, I was going to get out of the hospital!

“And that day could never have come without all of you. I want to particularly acknowledge my dearest friends Gary and Anita. They took on the awesome responsibility for another person’s life. There are no words for this depth of commitment. Their acts of moral, physical and spiritual courage is like nothing I’ve seen in my nearly 60 years. A truly once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. (At least I hope it’s only once.)

“A few days after the surgery, my friend Sarah at Henry Ford Hospital sent me an email to congratulate me and she said “now comes the really hard part.” I’ve been bedridden for a very long time and my muscles have atrophied considerably. It will take many months of hard physical therapy to get to a point of independent living. And I have to learn to live in new ways on all levels. This is a daunting task for an old curmudgeon who is set in his ways and deeply enjoys his creature comforts. But I’m up for it. And surprising myself, I find I’m looking forward to the challenge.

“One thing all this has taught me is that we are all capable of so much more than we imagine. When you’re exhausted and sure you’ve got nothing left, I guarantee you can reach down and get more. And a lot of that reserve and strength comes from the people who care about you and are there for you. So some of you are already sick of hearing it and the rest of you soon will be, but you might as well get used to it because I am never going to stop saying: Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

A website is set up to take donations as well as report on Vujic’s progress. For more details, go here:

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