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PHOENIX, Arizona – A lifetime of smoking finally caught up with Bob Kessner.
“I was one of the people who thought the Marlboro Man was really cool,” he says.
Five years ago, Kessner needed oxygen to breathe. Then he battled pneumonia and was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and his breathing rapidly worsened.
“When he was diagnosed, I thought, ‘This is going to be the end,’“says Kessner’s wife, Yoko. “So I was preparing for the end.”
Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of a journey to a new life.
Kessner’s road to recovery took the right turn when doctors in Honolulu recommended that he apply for a lung transplant. But where? Kessner went online and learned that Norton Thoracic Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix is one of the busiest lung transplant programs in the United States.
In December 2018, Kessner flew from Honolulu, where he works as an attorney, to Phoenix on a private medical flight because he was too ill for a commercial plane. Kessner opted to fly to Phoenix even though he had not yet been placed on a transplant wait list. (He made the trip in a bright red pressurized blanket labeled “Burrito Supreme” – viewed as a good omen by Kessner, a devoted Taco Bell burrito fan.)
The 70-year-old received his new lungs in January.
“I was afraid of the operation, because it’s risky,” Kessner says. “I realized that the alternative was a slow, ugly COPD death.”
Lung transplants are among the most complicated surgical procedures. Recipients require lifelong care. Norton's lung transplant program has outstanding quality scores and shorter than average wait times.
Since his release from the hospital, Kessner and his wife are traveling the West, spending time with his four adult children and planning his retirement. Their first stop was the Grand Canyon this summer.
“The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 8,297 feet high,” Kessner says. “Before the transplant, I would have died if I had gone there.”
The Kessners have adopted a motto, “Every Day Better,” coined by a friend and personal trainer in Honolulu. The Kessners present “Every Day Better” t-shirts to caregivers who have helped Kessner along the way, many of them on the Norton Thoracic Institute staff.
“We become very close to our patients and their families throughout the transplant process; we treat them like family whether they’re from across the street or across an ocean,” says Sofya Tokman, M.D., a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Norton Thoracic Institute who specializes in lung transplantation. “I’m thrilled to see how well Bob is doing since his transplant and delighted that he has a new lease on life.”
Kessner says he is “eternally grateful” to his lung donor. “I have a responsibility to keep these lungs healthy,” he says. “People have given me the ultimate gift. It’s saved my life and profoundly changed my life.”