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Swimming Through Adversity

Valen Keefer is a blog writer for the Chris Klug Foundation. She interviewed Gavin to help tell his incredible story. 

Take a deep breath, pause and exhale. Again, take a deep breath and now let that cleansing breath out. How did that feel? Relaxing? Rejuvenating? If your answer is “yes,” consider yourself lucky. It is easy to take things for granted. Breathing may be natural and effortless for most, however, not everyone is fortunate to have fully functioning lungs. There are people out there gasping for air right now and dependent on an oxygen machine. Gavin Maitland was once one of those peoplefighting for each breath, fighting for his life. That is, until he received a lifesaving double lung transplant on March 14, 2008.

I had the pleasure of “meeting” Gavin via telephone and was quickly inspired by his triumph over adversity. It didn’t take long to learn that Gavin is a strong-willed man who is not afraid to push the boundaries. He possesses the kind of determination that has enabled him to beat the odds and a strong fortitude to live each day to the fullest.

Gavin, 51-years-old, was born and raised in Fraserburgh, Scotland. He currently lives in Boulder, CO with his wife, Julie, and two children, Zander and Riley. Their unique journey as a family has led to them sharing a priceless bond, one in which they’ve endured great lengths together, both on land and water. I enjoyed listening to Gavin’s Scottish accent as he shared his story, but what stood out most to me was the grit behind his words and his wisdom on life, which can only come from someone who has been on death’s doorstep and miraculously survived.

Gavin’s lung journey began at 35-years-of-age when he started to have an unexplained cough. This cough went undiagnosed for six years. Countless doctors told him it was allergies or asthma. Gavin, however, wasn’t buying into their responses. He knew it was something more. Gavin has always been very athletic and after participating in the 2007 NYC Marathon, he felt so ill that he went to the emergency room. From that ER visit forward, he was on oxygen 24/7. Gavin was finally given a diagnosis of a sub-type of pulmonary fibrosis and was suddenly in desperate need of a new set of lungs.

As Gavin struggled with each breath, he needed to find a transplant center as soon as possible. He went to the University of Colorado, who said that they could not do the lung transplant and that nobody else could either. There are about 23 lung transplant centers in the United States. Seventeen centers turned him down and four did not reply to him. Duke University Hospital in North Carolina was up for the challenge and approved to transplant him. Gavin relocated to North Carolina to receive his second chance and in 21 days, he received a new set of lungs from a deceased donor. He lived in North Carolina for four months, with two young kids and a wife in Denver. His wife flew back and forth from Denver to Duke on a regular basis. Gavin said that his wife’s dedication and support helped save his life as he could barely breathe nor think properly and could never have done it all on his own.

As Gavin states so poignantly, “Nothing else matters if you can’t breathe properly.” I asked Gavin what it felt like before his transplant. He said, “When you can’t breathe, you are in a fog. It feels like you are underwater, lying face down and can’t get any air. It is the worst feeling. I’d wake up sometimes with no air, as my oxygen machine wouldn’t be positioned correctly. My legs and arms would be tingling and I would grab for my oxygen mask. It felt dreadful. I woke up from transplant surgery taking this beautiful deep, deep breath and knew for certain I received great lungs.”

Lung transplants have the worst outcomes of all organ transplants. The average survival rate is about five years and Gavin is defying the odds. He has already reached the 10-year milestone. I asked him why he thinks he is doing so well post-transplant. His tips are: a lot of exerciseboth physical and mental, finding something worth doing, having a goal and setting goals, getting good organs in the first place, doctors being on top of things and taking meds on time. Gavin said, “The main thing is to never give up. Don’t accept what people tell you. If it is not correct, keep pushing long enough and you’ll find something. Keep your spirits up.”

One might wonder if physical activity may be limited after receiving a new set of lungs. However, after meeting Gavin, I can confidently say, “There are no limitations!” Gavin did a lot of swimming in high school and marathon running. It didn’t take him long after transplant to dive back into living life to the fullest and hitting the pavement doing what he loves. Gavin participated in a sprint triathlon just 13 months after receiving his gift of life.

Gavin’s most recent accomplishment is the publication of his book titled, “Swimming Through Adversity: Surviving a Lung Transplant,” which documents the past 10 years of his life post-transplant. He shares all of his swimming adventures, including ones where his kids have joined him, and how he celebrated his 5-year transplant anniversary by open-water swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. There is a chapter describing his experience climbing Aspen Mountain at Chris Klug Foundation’s 2017 Summit for Life. One of his favorite parts of the book is the chapter outlining when he met his donor family. You’ll be moved by the transition Gavin went through, from struggling to breathe to using the incredible stamina of his transplanted lungs and what he is able to accomplish thanks to the selflessness of someone saying “yes” to organ donation. His wife was given her husband back. His kids were given their father back. Gavin was given his life back and the ability to be with the ones he loves and to get back to doing what he loves. Isn’t that what life is all about? Gavin is “swimming through adversity” in a way that provides inspiration, hope and encouragement to others.

Gavin is on a mission to help others and create a healthier future for lung patients. He is very passionate about lung research and has raised over $17,000 for Duke Post-Lung Transplant Research. For more information, visit www.gavinswims.life. All proceeds from his book are donated to organ transplant causes, like Duke and Chris Klug Foundation. You can purchase Swimming Through Adversity at: https://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Through-Adversity-Surviving-Transplant/dp/145756372X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1530076536&sr=8-1&keywords=swimming+through+adversity&dpID=41G6EjAzctL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch.

I am in awe by what Gavin and his new set of lungs have accomplished. He has climbed mountains, ran marathons and swam in intense open water. I am moved by how he is using his second chance to make a positive impact on the world with his passion to raise awareness of organ donation, register more organ donors and, most importantly to him, raise money for lung research. Gavin, thank you for exemplifying that there are no limits in life when you put your mind, heart and lungs into it. The world record for a lung transplant recipient is 29 years. I believe you’re well on your way to setting the next record.

As Gavin’s donor’s mom says, “There is no downside to organ donation.” In honor of Gavin and his donor, let’s wrap this up as we started: take a deep breath in and exhale. Do you have a deeper appreciation for those beautiful lungs of yours? I hope Gavin’s journey has inspired you as much as it has for me, because:

“While we breathe, we will hope.” – Latin: Dum spiro spero

Have you received a lung transplant? If so, please share your story with us and how many years post-transplant you are.

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