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With new lungs, anything is possible

Five weeks ago, Justin Lewishad as much of a chance of walking on the moon as he did paddling a canoe. In fact, he could barely walk across the room without assistance.

Mayo pulmonologist Dr. Mark Wylam will be running the Healthy Human Race 5k with Justin Lewis. Lewis received a lung transplant about a month ago.

Five weeks ago, Justin Lewis had as much of a chance of walking on the moon as he did paddling a canoe. In fact, he could barely walk across the room without assistance.

But since then, everything has changed. On Saturday afternoon, he will run the Mayo Clinic Healthy Human Race 5k.

"I can't believe it either,'' he said. "I've been looking forward to this day for what seems like forever.''

Lewis was born with cystic fibrosis, which is an inherited disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to form in the lungs. It blocks the airways and causes lung damage, making it extremely hard to breathe.

But in the early morning hours of July 15, Lewis' life changed. That's when he received new lungs, undergoing a successful transplant.


The smile you saw on his face earlier this week went from ear-to-ear when he talked about his new lease on life. He never backed down, either; on the positive scale of 1-to-10, he was an 11.

"When they took me off the ventilator (two days after his surgery) and when I could 'breathe' for the first time on my own, that was the best feeling ever,'' he said.

A new lung will do that. On Saturday, he will line up to do a 5k, just like hundreds of others, although he will be the only one testing out a new pair of lungs.

Lewis will be running alongside his two brothers (Isaiah and Adam), father (Keith) and Dr. Mark Wylam, a Mayo pulmonologist and his longtime physician.

His mother, Monica, and girlfriend, Trista Hager, will be watching as well.

"Knowing what Justin represents and the opportunity to show people what is possible, that excites me,'' Wylam said. "You ask if I will get chills when we're ready to cross the finish line, and I say yes because of the hope he brings to everybody who is fighting like Justin.

"But you must be dedicated to a healthy lifestyle in order to achieve what Justin has achieved.''

Lewis, 25, who is from Kasson, was born with cystic fibrosis.The last couple of years have been really rough. In 2012, he was hospitalized seven times in order to fight off lung infections. Those stays lasted three to four weeks at a time.


Last year, he was in the hospital six times. Same thing, up to a month at a time.

He had to have eight breathing (20 minutes each) and three to four lung treatments (30 minutes each) every day.

Every night, he had to wear an oxygen mask.

For the last two years, Lewis was on the transplant list, since July 24, 2012, to be exact.

"We had to stay within an hour of Rochester, so we couldn't go anywhere,'' Lewis said, "and, of course, had to have a cellphone which could get good reception.''

And he could never go to a place without electricity.Finally, the call came.

"That night, my dad was making a spaghetti dinner at his house and Trista answered the phone, and at first couldn't decide where it was coming from. We found out it was from Mayo Clinic and were out of the house in five minutes.''

After seven days in the hospital, Lewis was moved to the Transplant House, where he will rehab until sometime in October.


Wylam said Lewis is up to the task of running a 5k even though it has been less than five weeks after the transplant. Lewis said his only goal is to finish.

"To put it in context, Justin has already been doing three miles on the treadmill as part of his pulmonary rehab,'' Wylam said. "This race is only part of that rehab.''

Youth and a high fitness level are on Lewis' side.

"He was dedicated to keeping as fit as he could,'' said Wylam, "otherwise, I'm afraid, something like this could have been a losing battle.

"But we knew the opportunity was there.''

Wylam came to Mayo in 1998, and through his career, has participated in more than 500 lung transplants.

Nationwide, about only 2,000 transplants are done per year. Mayo's peak number was 24; this year, it has performed 14.

"We want to see that number climb,'' Wylam said, "but the biggest obstacle is having enough donors. Maybe Justin's story will encourage others to sign a donation card.It changes lives.''


Lewis said someday he would like to meet the family that donated the lungs.

After all, he said, one family's sacrifice saved another man's life.

"I'm determined to make them proud of me,'' said Lewis, who has studied accounting and will pursue that field. "I can never thank them enough, and I'll show them what I can do. I'm a big dreamer. I plan to live life to its fullest.''

And Lewis's dreams don't stop at the 5k. He also wants to canoe the Mississippi River along with his girlfriend, starting from the primary source and paddling all the way through the state.

He wants to skydive, and he wants to complete a triathlon with his two brothers and father at his side.

"The triathlon is in Nevis, Minn. I've always watched them do that race, but could only cheer from the sideline,'' he said.

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