Every year around December 19, Eb Thomas sends renowned barbecue from Memphis to the five doctors and nurses who helped him gain a second chance at life.
The date marks the anniversary of Thomas’ lung transplant and he is always certain that everyone involved is equally appreciated. December 2007 marked the fifth year since his surgery.
“I think Barnes-Jewish is outstanding,” Thomas says. “The people were wonderful. They’re friends now.”
After a skiing trip in 1989, Eb Thomas felt more out of breath and tired than usual, and it wasn’t just from hitting the slopes. Little did he know that soon he would be fighting an uphill battle of an entirely different sort.
One year later Thomas, a Memphis native, was diagnosed with a rare hereditary disease, Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, more commonly called Alpha-1. The illness is as daunting as the name.
A hereditary lung disease that causes emphysema, Alpha-1 results in low levels of a vital protein in the blood. According to the American Lung Association, the damage is irreversible and results in permanent “holes” in the tissues of the lower lungs. The effects eventually lead to less oxygen getting into the bloodstream, causing shortness of breath during exercise and, eventually, even during periods of rest. Because it is hereditary and he had virtually no symptoms, Thomas was not officially diagnosed until he was 41.
After the diagnosis, Thomas began to experience a slow and gradual deterioration of his lungs. In 2000, his doctor in Memphis suggested he look into seeking further treatment at Barnes-Jewish Hospital because of their well-known patient care and transplant program.
Upon initial visits to the hospital, Thomas was placed on the transplant list. Due to his relatively slow decline in health, there was not yet a sense of urgency to receive the transplant. Critical cases went straight to the top of the list, while non-critical patients had a wait of up to three years. After undergoing several tests, Thomas returned to Memphis to continue his position as chief financial officer of First Tennessee Bank, the largest bank in the state–only this time he was hooked up to an oxygen tank at all times.
“I remember thinking once I went on the oxygen, I was done,” Thomas says but his physicians at Barnes-Jewish got him thinking positively, so Thomas agreed to use the tank until there was news of a transplant.
Even with the oxygen, everything in his life became increasingly more difficult – showering, working and even putting on his socks and shoes were excruciating.
Through everything, Thomas was grateful to have a strong faith in God and the love and patience of his wife Mara.
Myra dropped her husband off and picked him up from work as driving became too dangerous for him. From there, a security guard would accompany Thomas as he rode the elevator three floors up to his desk. He says his support was the reason that he was able to continue working.
As the months turned into years, the disease began to take its toll. Two years and several oxygen tanks later, Thomas’s lung capacity had weakened to a mere 17 percent, which meant he was now in dire need of a transplant – fast.
On Dec. 19, 2002, Thomas received a new shot at life: He finally underwent a successful lung transplant. His second chance came in his first big breath after the surgery.
“The day after the transplant I was off the oxygen, and I never went back on,” Thomas says.
After receiving the transplant, Thomas underwent a rehabilitation program at the hospital with Myra by his side. The process included roughly two hours a day of exercising using treadmills, bikes and weights to help regain strength and breathing control.
“Barnes-Jewish really stressed the rehab. The requirements to get into the transplant program were so strict because they want you to be successful,” he says.
Thomas continued the regime after returning home. He purchased a treadmill and says it’s become a habit to use it daily, sometimes as much as twice per day.
Because breathing isn’t a struggle anymore, Thomas is now able to enjoy things he wasn’t used to, such as a game of tennis or golf.
“I feel younger after this transplant,” Thomas says. “There’s very little I would like to do that I can’t. The people, the doctors, everyone was outstanding. It’s unbelievable quality.”
With his second chance at life, Thomas wanted to turn his sense of appreciation into action, so he decided to become a transplant mentor for other patients going through the same experiences. Thomas frequently receives calls from potential transplant patients, curious with questions for the “go-to” successful patient. He shares his own story and provides emotional support for those considering transplants.
“I tell them certain feelings are normal, and try to help them through the experience,” he says. “It’s really a one-on-one support group. I think they get something out of it, and I get a lot out of it too.”
Although Thomas’s road was long and painful, he says the rewards were worth it. “If I thought I was going to live only six months after the transplant, I’d still do it,” Thomas says.
Approaching the six-year anniversary of his transplant (and the next shipment of barbecue to his friends at Barnes-Jewish) Eb has established the Eb and Myra Thomas Lung Transplant Fund through the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation. “As a banker, whether it’s barbecue or Barnes-Jewish,” smiles Eb, “I believe in investing in the best.”
From the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation's Giving Magazine, Fall 2008