‘Tears of joy’
Holsey James battled his way back from cancer and cardiac arrest to earn a spot on the lung transplant waiting list and a renewed life.
With all the hurdles he had to jump—all the roadblocks he ran into along his transplant journey—no one would have blamed Holsey James if he’d just stopped fighting.
He wouldn’t have been alone in thinking he was too ill to get a pair of donor lungs.
But Holsey didn’t know how to quit.
And his doctors conspired with him, refusing to withhold hope, no matter how bleak things looked.
“I knew I wasn’t giving up. I don’t know how to give up,” said Holsey, 68, of Muskegon, Michigan.
“I would always pray, ‘Just help me get through this.’”
A second chance
With grit, resilience and quality care, Holsey battled his way back—first from prostate cancer and later from weeks on life support following a cardiac arrest—to earn a spot on the UNOS lung transplant waiting list.
That’s not to mention the ruptured intestine, internal bleeding and other issues he experienced along the way.
A turnaround like Holsey’s is stunning, according to Anupam Kumar, MD, a pulmonologist and critical care physician with the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program.
“It’s an amazing story because, basically, he came back from death,” Dr. Kumar said.
“He came back from death to get a lung transplant to get a second chance at life. So that’s—that’s quite unheard of, to be honest.”
Holsey blames his lung disease—COPD—on years of smoking and working in metal foundries. Though he quit both more than a decade ago, the damage had been done.
For years, he hid from his family how much he struggled to breathe.
“I kind of tried to fake it,” he said. “By not telling them, I thought I was protecting them.”
By 2014 he could no longer hide his illness. When his wife, Gloria, accompanied him to the doctor one day, he left the office on oxygen.
“I was shocked,” Gloria said. “That’s how we first found out.”
Four years later, Holsey’s breathing reached a crisis point. Though he’d tried keeping up with pulmonary rehab, he could no longer drive his car, hold his grandchildren or do much of anything.
“About the last year, he just stayed in that room watching TV,” Gloria said.
In the spring of 2018 Holsey’s doctor referred him to the Spectrum Health lung transplant program.
That’s when Holsey met Dr. Kumar, who began an extensive evaluation process to assess his fitness for transplant.
“(Dr. Kumar) gave me hope every time I would go to that clinic,” Holsey said. “When I was being evaluated, he just made me feel that this was possible.”
Things looked promising for Holsey until he hit his first hurdle: a prostate cancer diagnosis.
That instantly disqualified him from the transplant list.
But Holsey learned that his cancer was limited and treatable. If he could beat it, the clinic might still be able to list him for transplant.
Resolving to fight, Holsey underwent radiation treatments in Muskegon—five days a week for two months.
His family gave him a lot to live for, he said, holding back tears.
“I couldn’t see leaving them alone. My wife and kids, my grandkids—I just couldn’t see leaving them alone. I was more scared about that than dying.”
Holsey emerged from his radiation treatments cancer free and ready for the transplant list.
His insurance company thought otherwise. It took advocacy from Dr. Kumar to convince his insurer to approve transplant coverage.
In November 2018, Holsey finally made it onto the list and began his wait—at home in bed, with 24/7 oxygen support.
In the new year, Holsey’s situation slipped from bad to worse. In late January he landed in the ICU at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center with respiratory failure.
Dr. Kumar stopped to see Holsey on his rounds the next day, arriving just in time to see his code blue button light up.
Holsey’s breathing and heart had stopped.
With his intimate knowledge of his patient, Dr. Kumar knew exactly how to respond.
“Immediately, as soon as he had a cardiac arrest—luckily that happened in the ICU and I was there—we involved the cardiac ICU team and put him on a machine called ECMO,” Dr. Kumar said.
The ECMO machine took over his breathing and circulatory functions, giving his body a chance to rest.
Holsey was again too ill to undergo a transplant, so the lung transplant team deactivated his status on the list.
All bets were off.
During his weeks in the ICU, Holsey faced a string of new challenges, including a ruptured intestine that required emergency ileostomy surgery.
“There was so much going on,” Gloria said. “It seemed like everything started going wrong and I was about ready to give up because I’m like, ‘God, if he’s got to keep going through this—he’s suffering too much.’”
But Holsey kept fighting and praying—“Help me get through this.”
He came off ECMO.
Then, with a trach tube and ventilator helping him breathe and a feeding tube providing nourishment, he began to recover.
So his doctors made him a pledge: If he grew strong enough, they would put him back on the transplant list.
“And I can remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got this much hope and I’m going to do whatever I can do.’
“I grabbed onto that rope and I held on.”
By the end of February, Holsey made a huge milestone: The transplant team deemed him strong enough for reactivation on the transplant waiting list.
The team may have been as surprised as he was.
“Because he was going through so much, we never really thought he would be active on the list again,” Dr. Kumar admitted. Holsey’s sheer determination drove his rebound, the doctor said.
Holsey transferred to a local rehabilitation hospital and began physical therapy while he waited for a match. With the transplant clinic monitoring his progress and his family cheering him on, he increased his stamina.
About three weeks later, on March 22, 2019, Holsey received a phone call from his transplant coordinator, Jenee Carney.
“I’ve got good news—we got you some lungs,” he heard her say.
“It was almost surreal to me,” he said. “I didn’t think I was well enough, to be honest with you. I still felt so weak.”
Back at the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, Holsey steeled himself for surgery as his surgeon, Edward Murphy, MD, awaited the final go-ahead.
“I was with Dr. Murphy outside Holsey’s room when we got the call from our team at the donor hospital telling us the lungs looked great and it was time to move him to the OR,” Carney said.
“Dr. Murphy let me tell Holsey and Gloria everything was a go,” she said. “I remember Gloria wrapping me up in a big hug and crying tears of joy.”
After all she’d seen him through, all the mental stress she bore as she walked this road beside him, Gloria finally could see the light at the end of the tunnel. She knew Holsey would be OK.
“It was just a great feeling,” she said.
Gloria can’t say enough about the support the family received the whole way through.
“I just love Dr. Kumar and Jenee. They kept us going. They didn’t give up,” she said.
“The chaplains, too—they prayed with us and visited us every day.”
Despite his grit and his providers’ encouragement, Holsey, in the depths of his struggles, sometimes wondered, “Am I deserving of this?”
A year later, those doubts are gone.
Holsey has a new life and he’s not afraid to talk about it.
“I think I’ve got something to share—my experience and my strength and my hope,” he said.
Drawing on the college degree he earned at age 59—just before his COPD became debilitating—he now works part-time as a life coach for families navigating issues surrounding substance use.
“Anything that will help people,” he said.
He also hopes to advocate for organ donation, knowing the profound difference it’s made for him.
“I’m still living because somebody cared.”