Lung transplant

Tom is able to take Honor Flight trip to D.C. after receiving a new set of lungs

Man standing in front of a monument in Washington, D.C.

In 2023, Tom Colthurst received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in an Honor Flight—a free one-day trip during which veterans visit Washington, D.C. to see the nation’s memorials.

There was just one problem: Tom, who had to use oxygen 24/7, was in the process of getting on the wait list for a double lung transplant. His pulmonologist, Dr. Erin Lowery, told him he should ask about going on the trip after receiving his gift of life. He would feel much better with a new set of lungs, she said.

The Honor Flight organization agreed to defer Tom’s invitation, which turned out to be fortuitous—just seven days after getting on the wait list, Tom received a lung transplant on May 2, 2023, at the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison.

And one year later, in May 2024, Tom participated in the Honor Flight with his new lungs and a grateful heart. “It’s just amazing that it worked out,” said his wife, Pat.

Lifesaving decisions

In 2012, Tom was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, but it wasn’t until he had COVID-19 in May 2022 that he started experiencing life-threatening problems. “That fall, I was prescribed oxygen, and by Christmas, I was on it 24/7,” he said. “I couldn’t go up three steps on a flight of stairs. It was terrible how quickly I had deteriorated.”

Tom needed a lung transplant. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and the Army National Guard, making him eligible to receive care for his lung disease through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He lives in Washington, Iowa, and researched programs there and in Madison, ultimately choosing to use his VA benefits and receive care at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.

“We talked with people from both centers, and after we met with members of the VA lung transplant team in Madison, we knew we were going to go there,” said Pat. “The wait time was less, and it had a greater success rate.

Sure enough, Tom only had to wait a week for his gift of life. He and Pat left their home on April 23, 2023, to be in Madison while they waited for the call. After his transplant, Tom recovered and rehabilitated after surgery and returned home in August.

They always knew they were in the right place. “We were very pleased with the care I received at both University Hospital and the VA,” said Tom.

Tom’s goal had been to walk a 5K for his six-month transplant anniversary, and sure enough, he was well enough to walk in one on Nov. 4, 2023. The following May, he took his friend John on the Honor Flight—a trip he had waited a long time to experience.

“I wanted to be able to live long enough for my youngest grandchild to have a good memory of their grandpa,” he said. “But our daughters kept on having babies, so that meant I had to live even longer. Now I feel like I can.”