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Joe Hernandez is living the good life.
He’s working full time as a custodian, he walks on the treadmill every day, and he and his wife, Barbara, are happily settled in Kenosha, WI. But two years ago, none of those aspects of his life were certain. He struggled to breathe, and just getting through each day was an effort.
Joe’s health problems began six years ago, when he contracted pneumonia three months in a row and found he was always short of breath. He saw a pulmonologist, who diagnosed him with lung disease. Joe was placed on 24/7 oxygen. “Before that, I had been active,” says Joe. “I played softball and worked as a mechanic for 25 years. But eventually, I had to quit my job as a mechanic because it was just too much for me.”
He got a job as a custodian in the Kenosha public schools. In the meantime, Joe was seeing a pulmonologist at UW Health in Madison, WI, who was keeping a close eye on his health to determine if he qualified for a double lung transplant. Joe got on the wait list for a new set of lungs in February 2021. He received his first call that organs had become available in May, but when he arrived at the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19, so he couldn’t be transplanted, and those lungs saved someone else. On June 19, Joe received his gift of life.
He was in the hospital for three weeks as he recovered from his transplant. “It was great up there (at University Hospital),” he says. “Everything the staff did for me was awesome. They told me everything I needed to know.”
Even though Joe has a new set of lungs, life is definitely different than it was before he suffered from lung disease. He’s had a couple of return visits to University Hospital, due to fluid in his lungs. Additionally, his lung damage had caused chronic acid reflux that damaged his stomach, so he had to have a stomach surgery earlier this year.
But Joe doesn’t need oxygen anymore, and in June 2022, he accomplished his biggest goal—returning to work. “I’m feeling really good,” he says. “If I didn’t get the transplant, I wouldn’t be here anymore.”
Joe is especially grateful to the family of his organ donor. He wrote them a letter shortly after receiving his gift of life, and he says he thinks about them every day. “Because of them, my life has changed for the better,” he says.