FAIRFIELD, Conn. (CBS 2) — A Connecticut man is running his first marathon next month. That might not sound unusual except for the fact that last fall he couldn’t walk across a room.
One year ago, Tim Sweeney could barely walk without wearing an oxygen mask. One year ago, both Tim and his wife, Beth, believed his days were numbered, reports CBS 2’s Dana Tyler.
“I always knew there was something different when I grew up. I always had a slight cough in the morning, but as the day went on, it became less and less,” Tim said.
For years, he had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 2 years old. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder in which the body produces a thick mucous that clogs the lungs and hampers digestion.
Tim never missed a day of school, though. His mother gave him the proper medications; his father pushed him to be athletic. They didn’t label him.
“He was so young. We didn’t want to stop him from doing anything, to be as normal as possible, to play with his brothers and do what everybody else did, so we didn’t tell him when he was young,” Tim’s mother, Rose Sweeney, said.
Tim was always athletic. He finished college and worked as a fitness trainer. When he and Beth started dating, she heard something in his chest, and insisted he see a doctor.
“They asked, ‘how long have you known you had cystic fibrosis,’ and I was 26, 27, and I was like, ‘whoa,’” Tim said. “To me, it was a bombshell. Now, all of a sudden, it was real. I looked it up, life expectancy was 37 or something. It was a major shock.”
That was in 2004. Tim said he felt fine and always thought he could beat it, but in 2007 – soon after the couple married – his health began to decline.
They were able to have a baby through in vitro fertilization, but doctors told the new father he had 18 months to live if he didn’t undergo a lung transplant.
Tim recalled the agonizing wait for a donor.
“There’s someone out there leading a normal life. Typically it’s an accident victim, so it’s sudden,” Tim said. “It’s such a tragic and beautiful thing all at once. You know it’s going to happen.”
When his normal treatments failed last fall, Tim was unable to breathe on his own. With double pneumonia, Sweeney was quickly moved to the top of the list for a rare double lung transplant.
“I was 120 pounds, I was so weak, eyes sunken in, losing hair,” Tim said.
After three false alarms, Dr. Joshua Sonnett transplanted the lungs of a 25-year-old accident victim last Nov. 10, saving Tim Sweeney’s life.
“Medically, he was at a point, he was around 20 percent of where he should be. He lost 80 percent of his lung function,” Dr. Sonnett said. “Once you get in the 20 percent range, basically in a window, if he got an infection he could have died.”
Only 100 double lung transplants are performed in the United States each year. Tim woke up in intensive care wondering how the transplant went, when Dr. Sonnett shocked him with a question.
“He said, ‘I understand you’re a trainer. I just did the NYC marathon,’ and I thought that would have been great, especially with new lungs,” Tim said. “He said, ‘Why don’t we do that?’”
“He said, ‘I’ll run it with you next year.’ I didn’t expect him to do it,” Dr. Sonnett said. “[But] I knew he could, I knew he could.”
Dr. Sonnett said Tim’s lifelong commitment to a good diet and exercise – even walking the hospital corridors with weights – ensured his speedy recovery. He was released from the hospital in a week, and there’s still been no infection and no rejection.
“He woke up every night, for every night for two years, having coughing fits,” Beth said. “[Now] there was no coughing, no heavy breathing, no oxygen sound. I’m lying there, dead silent – we just started laughing.”
And now, there’s no stopping him. Beth designed T-shirts to raise money for medical costs and cystic fibrosis, and be his coach.
“I try to get him to lengthen his stride and lean forward a bit,” Beth said. “I run behind him on these things so he doesn’t get an injury that day.”
The little boy with the cough now has wings on his heels, and he doesn’t run alone. He’s grateful to his doctors, the donor and his family.
“It felt like something…I was doing something I was born to do,” Tim said. “This is what came natural to me, to go outside and go running.”
Tim Sweeney’s first marathon will be on Nov. 7, and even though it’s Dr. Sonnett’s fourth, he said it’ll be tough keeping up with Tim and his new lungs.
Tim and Beth hope his story inspires others waiting for organ transplants – that they know that yes, it’s a long and often dire road, but there are heroes all around us sharing the gift of life.