Tom Earll is Making Memories with Every Breath

When Tom Earll’s daughter, Katy, planned her wedding, she easily chose the venue and the dress. But one heartbreaking fact loomed over it all: Katy didn’t know if her father would live long enough to walk her down the aisle.

“It was very possible that I was going to die and not be at her wedding,” Tom explains. “I kept looking forward to that day. Even at the very end when I was very sick and could hardly get off the couch.”

At that point, Tom had been suffering from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis for 10 years. He was on the transplant list, but his doctor said he had a maximum of two months to live.

As he lay in bed those last two months with his wife caring for him, Tom found strength in his daughter’s future. He fought to be present and create a memory he and his family could cherish.

Man holding baby

Tom with his grandson.

Years before, when he was first diagnosed, Tom only had to wear oxygen while exercising, but by the time of his daughter’s engagement he had to carry an oxygen concentrator and tanks of oxygen wherever he went. As his conditioned worsened, he needed the concentrator even while sleeping.

Tom’s path to this point was not direct: a misdiagnosis of asthma delayed his treatment for years. It wasn’t until Tom sought the help of pulmonologists at Loyola Medicine that he finally arrived at the correct diagnosis and was put on the transplant list.

You have to be “sick to enough to qualify, but healthy enough to qualify,” Tom says, acknowledging the difficult decisions hospitals must make when deciding who receives a transplant and who doesn’t.
Months passed while Tom waited. Katy’s wedding ticked closer.

Then one night, while Tom rested in bed with his breathing labored, the phone rang. The hospital had a pair of lungs for him. On December 8, 2015 he received a bilateral lung transplant.

On the third morning after his transplant, Tom could see downtown Chicago from his bed. The sun rose, reflecting off the glass buildings. “I sat up and took a deep breath. I got hit with this wave of emotion, and I burst into tears because I realized that this was my new normal,” Tom recalls.

man walks daughter down the aisle

Tom walks Katy down the aisle.

In the end, Tom was able to walk his daughter down the aisle, making a dream come true for them both. “I danced like a fool at her wedding,” he laughs, “and there was always a chair close by so I could sit down and rest.” Because while Tom emphasizes the joy of making new memories without difficulty breathing, his road to recovery is long and some things in his life will never be the same.

“I grew up swimming and boating, and I was in, on or under the water most of my life. I can’t do that anymore. Some days you struggle to win the mental battle. But I always wanted to play the guitar, so instead, I do that now.”

In addition to learning guitar, Tom has taken up a few athletic challenges. Just nine months after his transplant surgery he ran his first 5K, with friends and family cheering from the sidelines in custom t-shirts that said “Tom’s Second Wind.”

This year, he saw that Loyola had created a Hustle Chicago team to benefit the lung disease research supported by the Respiratory Health Association.

That’s how Tom wound up joining “Loyola’s Lung Angels” and practicing for the climb in his local municipal parking garage, which has 4 floors of stairs. He goes up and down 20 times to reach 1600 steps.

Of the race and the rest of his recovery, he says, “I’m going to keep going at a steady pace.”

To support Tom’s efforts, visit his fundraising page.

The Night that Fuels Nicole’s Fight Against Asthma

Nicole Brown was at home when her one-year-old baby Nicholas began to cry. As hours passed and nothing soothed him, Nicole knew that it was time to call the doctor.

A team of two doctors and a nurse quickly realized that Nicholas was struggling to breathe. They began breathing treatments, checked his pulse, and recommended transferring him to a nearby hospital.

After a final breathing treatment, Nicole left for the hospital. “We just made it,” she describes. There, the doctors and nurses uncovered what Nicholas had been trying to tell them – his left lung had collapsed.

Doctors observed him around the clock, unsure what caused the collapse. The possibility of infectious disease meant Nicole wasn’t able to hug or physically comfort her son.

Woman holding baby in hospital with mask and gown on

Nicole holding Nicholas in the PICU

The PICU moved Nicholas to an isolated room to reduce the threat posed by possible infections. The doctors, nurses and Nicole all wore paper gowns and masks whenever they stepped inside.

With protective garments in place, Nicole was allowed to hold Nicholas again – but only while doctors worked to remove the mucus accumulating in his lungs. Nicholas tried to scream, but couldn’t due to his weak breath. Tears streamed down his face as Nicole held him.

“It was awful. I didn’t want him to hurt, but I knew that I needed to keep him still for the doctors to help him,” recalls Nicole.

Tests soon revealed that Nicholas was not infectious and had responded well to the breathing treatments and the suction from his lungs. The doctors were surprised by how quickly Nicholas’ condition improved and finally arrived at his true diagnosis – asthma, a chronic condition that would have to be managed for the rest of his life.

That was eight years ago. Today Nicole, an engineer at Exelon, is preparing to climb her fifth Hustle Chicago and training five times a week. Her son’s asthma and mother’s COPD are at the forefront of her mind.

Boy smiling in a school photo

Nick in a recent school photo

“Nicholas’ asthma has definitely changed my perspective. I grew up with my parents smoking and I thought it was fine.  I also didn’t know that there are different inhalers– maintenance, preventative and rescue.” Nicholas now takes his maintenance inhaler twice a day. His rescue inhaler is there for him when he needs it.

Nicole hopes to have her son waiting for her at the top of the Hancock.

“I think about the people I’m doing it for, knowing that they can’t physically do what I’m doing. That helps push me more.”

Join us and support those affected by asthma and COPD. Donate to Nicole’s climb here.