He had to give up beer but got so much in return - new lungs that will let him finally fish with his grandkids

November 18, 2020
Lung transplant recipient Louis Besse gets a breathing treatment.
Double lung transplant recipient Louis Besse of Batesburg, South Carolina, gets a breathing treatment as he recovers from surgery. Photos by Emma Vought

Louis Besse can’t wait to do something he’s wanted to do for years but couldn’t because he was tethered to an oxygen tank. “I want to take my grandchildren fishing. They've got a pond near their house in Lancaster. And I've never been back here. Literally, I just couldn't make it.”

It took a major operation, a 40-pound weight loss and a ban on his beloved beer, but he’s now able to look forward to casting a line with his 11 and 16-year-old grandkids. 

Besse recently became the 100th lung transplant patient at MUSC Health, which relaunched the program in 2011. Medical Director Timothy Whelan, M.D., called the milestone a great reason to celebrate. “It’s 100 second chances. That’s a big accomplishment.”

Dr. Timothy Whelan 
Dr. Timothy Whelan

When Besse developed a bad cough several years ago, neither he nor his doctor connected it to his work as a chicken inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Batesburg, South Carolina, west of Columbia. As he saw expert after expert, he got worse and worse. “I'd say five, six years ago, I wasn't getting enough oxygen to talk and walk at the same time.”

A doctor referred Besse to Whelan at MUSC Health, which has the state’s only transplant center and nationally recognized pulmonary fibrosis center. Whelan diagnosed Besse with chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis. “It’s also known as bird fancier’s disease. Just a daily exposure to the chicken dust,” Besse said.

“Sometimes during the day, I'd have to go into what they call live hang. That's where the chickens come off of the trucks and they hang them onto the line to go into the building. While I was in there, you could see the sunbeams coming through the holes in the wall, and the dust was so thick you could cut it. It's the feather dust, the feces dust.”

Now that he had his answer about what had made him so sick, Besse began to think about getting a lung transplant. He’d have to drop from 250 pounds to just over 200 to improve his odds of success. 

“And that's not the only thing I had to sacrifice. I had to give up my beer,” Besse said.

He knew his chance of getting a transplant through MUSC Health was good. Whelan told him about the program’s track record. “When we look at the data, at MUSC, if you’re on the list for one year, you have a 97%-plus chance you will get your lung transplant. If you’re at other programs, it’s as low as a 50% chance,” Whelan said.

And the medical director said the program’s success rate is strong, too. “If you look at the cohort of 100, it’s an 86% one-year survival rate, which is right in there with the national average. For programs with low transplant rates within one year, you may never get the chance. MUSC is committed to giving its patients that second chance.”

Besse’s time on the list led to a double lung transplant at MUSC Health, and he immediately felt better. “I can definitely tell the difference.”

Besse didn’t know it, but another grandfather who loves fishing was about to become the 101st lung transplant recipient at MUSC Health. Whelan said the program has been growing, increasing from about 12 lung transplants a year to 20 during the past 12 months. “Lung transplant growth for MUSC is a short-term goal to support the residents of South Carolina and the surrounding region.”

The 101st recipient was Clarence Pitts, a construction project manager from the Athens, Georgia, area. He had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, lung disease from an unknown cause. But he knew one thing. “I found out I had a great-grandbaby coming.”

Lung transplant recipient Clarence Pitts holds transplant pillow. 
Lung transplant recipient Clarence Pitts traveled from Watkinsville, Georgia, for surgery at MUSC Health in Charleston after meeting Dr. Timothy Whelan at a satellite transplant clinic in Greenville, South Carolina.

Pitts wanted to see that child grow up a little. He talked to a transplant center in Georgia but ended up choosing MUSC Health because it felt more comfortable to him. Whelan, the transplant pulmonologist, traveled to MUSC Health’s transplant clinic in Greenville, South Carolina, less than two hours from Pitts’ home, to meet with Pitts and his son.

“I'm pretty blunt and asked some pretty strong questions,” Pitts said. “Dr. Whelan spent a long time with us, an hour or more. He was great.”

Pitts had a bilateral lung transplant, and soon after, was sitting up and talking. Both he and Besse expressed gratitude to the donors and their families. 

Whelan said it was rewarding to see their success. “There’s nothing cooler than seeing someone go from a lot of extra oxygen to no extra oxygen overnight. It’s amazing.”

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