Family thankful for son surviving lung transplant

A Marin family has an extraordinary reason to be thankful this season, celebrating the survival of a young man who thought he had a cold but ended up needing a lung transplant.

"I remember going in to get an x-ray and that's the last thing I remember," Michael Mason of Novato told KTVU.

That was the day in June the 20-year-old college student returned home from University of Oregon after finishing his finals, struggling with a cough.

"When I drove him to the doctor, I thought they're going to put him on antibiotics. I'll bring him home and in a week he'll be fine," recalled his mother, Karen Mason.

But Mike didn't leave the hospital or breathe on his own all summer. He went on life support within hours.   

"It was scary but at the same time you're so in shock, you can't believe this is what's really happening," said Karen.

"At 20 years old, giving up hope wasn't an option," Mike's first doctor, Sridhar Prasad told KTVU.

Dr. Prasad is a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael. He was stunned when he saw the x-ray. Mike had a deadly form of pneumonia and his lungs were disintegrating. 

"It hit home for me and for all my colleagues, because all of us have children. We couldn't imagine going through this," admitted Dr. Prasad.

Mike was put on a ventilator to rest his lungs. Later, after transfer to UCSF, a second form of life support was added to remove, oxygenate and recirculate his blood.

"The story of Mike's survival is about people never giving up," said Karen. She remembered there were several times she was called to both hospitals and told her son was slipping away.  

But UCSF Cardiothoracic Surgery performs more than 50 lung transplants every year and has one of the highest survival rates in the world.

"Functioning lungs are almost completely black, which means they're full of air and healthy," Director of the UCSF lung transplant program Dr. Steven Hays told KTVU, pointing to Mike's new lungs on an x-ray.

Alongside them he showed images of the patient's diseased lungs.

"They were almost all white, because they were full of fluid, pus and infection," explained Hays.

Mason's diagnosis was necrotizing pneumonia, an affliction that is almost impossible to reverse.  

"The lung had really been destroyed, left with empty cavities," observed Hays. He said the condition is rarely found in someone young and otherwise healthy.  

With no way for his lungs to heal, Mike had to be brought out of a medically induced coma to determine if he was strong enough for transplant. Without it he would certainly die.

"It certainly was a risky endeavor, and it really is a testament to how strong Mike is, both mentally and physically," said Hays.

On June 6, he underwent eleven hours of surgery. A week later, he stood to take his first steps after the operation. He had assistance and was hooked to machines, but they were his first steps nonetheless.

"Throughout most of this, I didn't know how bad it was, because I was on another planet," says Mike now.

At home now, he is juggling pills, not classes. Mike has a scheduled regimen of almost 40 medicines, vitamins, and supplements. He will be taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. 

"Those are the main ones, that really keep me alive," he acknowledged.

He makes regular treks to UCSF Medical Center for follow-ups to measure his lung function, as he rebuilds strength and stamina. 

Mike's ordeal dropped him from a weight of 150 pounds down to 97.

His UCSF team includes a nutritionist, cardiologist, endocrinologist, and psychologist.

"Don't stay in your comfort zone," urges Dr. Hays at one visit. "We want you to start pushing it so when you exercise you huff and puff."

Twice weekly, he works out at Kaiser's Physical Therapy, still easily winded and wobbly, but improving

"It feels good to be doing anything close to normal again, " he told KTVU while doing leg presses.

He hopes by next fall he'll be well enough to return to college and his friends.  

"Yeah, if definitely gets frustrating sometimes, but our motto's been one day at a time, " he smiles.

Mostly, the Masons are grateful, to everyone who cared, everyone who helped save Mike, especially his surgeon Dr. Jasleen Kukreja, who said she had never operated on a sicker patient. 

"It's so great to see you," she says, giving him a hug at a check-up, "and keep up the great work!"

The Masons will stay connected to the medical staff in coming years, at his check-ups.

He's been told as long as he avoids infection, he can live a normal, active life.

"It's miracles like that, that are the reason doctors do what they do," marvelled Karen Mason. "We we witnessed it hundreds of times."

Mike's last hurdle, leaving the hospital, was a six minute walking test in the hallway, with his mom, as always, rooting him on     

"I've learned there are so many people out there who support me and love me, and I just want to reciprocate that love back," concluded Mike.

"Don't take life for granted. Life's a blessing."

All the Masons know about the donor is that he was a man about twice Mike's age, and from Nevada.

Someday, they hope to meet his family and thank them in person for their life-saving decision to donate, in their time of grief.

There is a chronic shortage of lung donors in the U.S., with some patients dying before suitable lungs can be located.

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