This is the first in a four-part series that details Gary and Thelissa Zollinger’s cancer journey – fighting the disease, advocating for the right care and coming to the realization that regardless of outcome, they would work to make a difference for others like Gary. In December 2006, the couple established an endowment to fund research on early detection of lung cancer. The Gift of Life and Breath 5k Run/Walk would start the ball rolling. This May commemorates the 10th year of the race, high time to tell this story.
By Kelly Pate Dwyer
Thelissa Zollinger chatted with workers about where to plant new shrubs as her husband Gary organized lighting for their deck. The couple was immersed in a large-scale landscaping project, a healthy distraction from Gary’s fight with lung cancer – at two years and counting.
A phone rang. Gary went to take it. Might have been a call from work or a neighbor. Or about something much more important.
“Thelissa, you need to come in the house immediately!” Gary shouted. The call they’d been waiting for the last year had come: a pair of lungs was available for transplant. That was May 19, 2006, Thelissa’s 55th birthday. There could be no better gift.
Like soon-to-be-parents anticipating the first signs of labor, the Zollingers were primed to drop everything when that call came. Gary, then 57, was on oxygen and a recent coughing spell had turned his feet blue. He had tried a handful of drugs and therapies to treat what then was called bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, or BAC, a subtype of non-small cell lung cancer. They hadn’t helped much. His cancer, diagnosed at stage IV, was inoperable. The couple was determined to get Gary transplanted. But this treatment was used infrequently, and Gary would be asked to jump through many hoops to qualify.
Gary’s decision to pursue a transplant was based on the outcomes of other BAC patients, including nearly a dozen cases in a series of patients transplanted at the University of Alabama in the 1990s. Despite its limited track record, transplant offered a significantly higher five-year survival rate than forgoing it. Recurrence was a risk, but the Zollingers could live with that possibility.
Hours after Gary received that call, he checked into University of Colorado Hospital, then in Denver, where he met his surgeon, Dr. Michael Weyant – for the first time. As veteran cancer-fighters, the Zollingers had grown accustomed to surprises and the need for flexibility.
Needing a full set of lungs, Gary’s operation required a deceased donor and couldn’t be scheduled in advance. The doctor originally lined up for the surgery was out of town that day.
When Gary asked Dr. Weyant to walk them through the procedure, Thelissa recalls thinking, “Really? Again?” They’d rehearsed the plan several times with the first surgeon. Dr. Weyant said he would do a sequential transplantation – take one lung out, put a new one in and get it working before replacing the second lung. This method sidesteps the need for bypass with a heart-lung machine.
“I could feel my heart pounding,” Thelissa recalls. “I greatly respected this surgeon, but I also knew that wasn’t our original plan.
“In my BAC research, I had read that both lungs need to come out at the same time, then both new ones in, or you risk contamination of the new lungs.”
Gary listened quietly as his wife pulled out an article from her “cancer bag,” which held Gary’s treatment history, a stack of articles about BAC, and “The Cancer Chronicles,” a journal Thelissa started around the time Gary was diagnosed.
Thelissa showed the article to Dr. Weyant. Then the surgeon left the room.
A short while later, he returned and said the surgery would proceed shortly, and just as the Zollingers expected – both Gary’s lungs out, then both new lungs in. Relief swept over the couple. Apparently the doctors required, and possessed, as much flexibility as their patients.
“This was the one and only transplantation of this kind (BAC) we had done at the University of Colorado,” Dr. Weyant recalls. But tactically, he wasn’t covering new ground. He had transplanted some cystic fibrosis patients this way. “I had no problem doing it the way they wanted.”
Gary was taken into surgery at 9:30 p.m. By 3 a.m., a nurse told Thelissa the lungs were in successfully. Thelissa was overjoyed, expecting Gary would be out of surgery soon. Then the nurse explained that he still faced a critical hurdle – taking him off bypass. Thelissa’s elation turned once again to fear. She hadn’t thought beyond the transplant.
“That blindsided me,” Thelissa says. “It hadn’t resonated with me that bypass was serious. Maybe that was a blessing.”
And the clock ticked on.
Just before 8 a.m., nearly half a day after the surgery began, Dr. Weyant entered the waiting room. Thelissa had visualized a TV drama sort-of finish. Maybe a high five, some happy tears. Instead, she saw a face filled with fatigue and unfinished business. “He looked totally spent,” she says.
Gary was off bypass, but he had lost a lot of blood.
“With bypass, you have to give patients potent blood thinners, then you have to reverse the blood thinners later,” Dr. Weyant explains. An eight-hour surgery with a patient on bypass is extremely taxing on the body. Weyant would close up Gary, get him off the heart-lung machine, then reopen him hours later to ensure his blood was clotting properly.
By that evening Gary was stable. Finally. Thelissa was overcome with gratitude for the surgeon’s skillful work. She watched with awe her husband’s chest rise and fall, breathing with another man’s lungs. Later, Thelissa recalls the anesthesiologist telling Gary, who was otherwise fit before cancer, “If you didn’t have the health you do, there’s no way you would have survived this.”
The family of Gary’s lung donor requested to keep his identity private. Thelissa respected that, but she wanted to learn more about the man who, in losing his own life, helped extend her husband’s. She had been told he was from Wichita Falls, Texas, and she was able to find his obituary in a local newspaper. After reading it, she printed the article and his photo. She fashioned a makeshift pocket out of paper, placed the obituary inside, and pasted the pocket inside “The Cancer Chronicles.”
That journal is a 2-inch red spiral notebook in which Thelissa had summarized conversations with doctors, noted clinical data, and spelled out her fears, frustrations, hopes and faith along the cancer journey. In the back, she compiled a list of what she calls blessings and tender mercies – those unexpected moments of humanity you experience with a family member, friend or even a stranger at the grocery store. They are the moments that make you laugh or cry or both, and remind you there is hope, “that the sun still shines,” she says. That list would grow to 12 pages by the following year, and rereading them gave Thelissa solace on hard days.
Learning a bit about Gary’s donor was one such blessing. “That Christmas I bought a little Texas flag,” she says. “Rather than topping the tree with a star or an angel, we topped it with the Lone Star State flag, because that man was our star and our angel.”
Gary spent 17 days in the hospital recovering from transplant surgery, which included another procedure to repair a separation in his surgery wound. During that time, he grew impassioned about giving back, about making a substantial difference in the outcomes of other lung cancer patients.
“The minute Gary woke up and was able to talk to anybody, he was asking how we can prevent this from happening to other people,” Dr. Weyant recalls. “Most people are like, ‘Thank God I’m alive,’ and rightly so, and they live their life just trying to stay alive. For Gary, it was more than that, a whole lot of human grit and determination to survive and help other people.
“The world’s leading cancer killer is lung cancer by far and away, but it’s one of the least funded,” Dr. Weyant says. “Part of that is the perception that smokers have done this to themselves.”
Indeed, most people diagnosed with lung cancer are smokers. But dig a little deeper and the lines get blurry. Smoking is a risk factor for other types of cancer as well, including breast cancer, which receives the most research funding of any cancer type.
What’s more, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer are non-smokers, like Gary. They develop the disease due to one or a variety of reasons that may include exposure to secondhand smoke and toxins such as radon and asbestos, according to the American Cancer Society. Genetic predisposition and a history of tuberculosis may be factors as well.
While lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer, behind breast cancer in women and prostrate cancer in men, it claimed the most lives – an estimated 158,080 in 2016, compared with 40,890 deaths from breast cancer and 26,120 deaths from prostate cancer, according to the ACS.
While he was recovering from surgery, Thelissa shared a cursory thought with Gary. It was one of those far-fetched notions people dream up in times of extreme joy and gratitude. Why not organize a running race to fund lung cancer research? There were races for breast cancer and many other health conditions.
“Lung cancer was the orphan cancer,” Thelissa says. “It was – and is – so underfunded it didn’t have a voice. It lacked media exposure.”
Gary was on board. And he was adamant the money raised would specifically support research into early detection of lung cancer. They’d hold the first race in a year, on the anniversary weekend of his transplant.
“We were ignorant,” Thelissa recalls, just as they had been two years earlier, when they learned Gary had cancer. “We had no idea what we were getting into.”