They're like a modern-day Odd Couple whose lives intersected at Temple.
Max Clark and John Oberton – both in their late-60s and residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania – have developed a very special friendship borne of a shared medical diagnosis and parallel treatment plans that culminated in each receiving a double-lung transplant.
"On separate occasions and years apart, we came to Temple hardly able to breathe and confined to wheelchairs," recalls Clark. "We each left the hospital walking and breathing on our own!"
A Shared Diagnosis
Their paths began to merge about 10 years ago, before they knew one another, but each had been diagnosed separately with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a devastating condition that damages lung tissue while diminishing one's ability to breathe and quality-of-life.
Clark, 67, a retired custom exotic-wood cabinetmaker, attributes his development of COPD from decades of inhaling harsh wood finishes, as well as years of smoking. As Clark's condition deteriorated, the family man became less and less able to take care of his home and the sprawling farmland surrounding it.
Oberton, now 68, believes his lung problems originated in his childhood – which was spent on a large dairy farm that exposed him to methane gas and an assortment of harsh fertilizers. He, too, acknowledges that his smoking habit was a contributing factor. As the symptoms of his disease increased, his activity level decreased. "Before the diagnosis, I was always on the move," he recalls.
In the Fall of 2008, Temple's Odd Couple were first introduced to one another while attending the same rehabilitation program near their respective homes.
Temple's Support Group
As a supplement to rehabilitation, Max Clark was also attending group support sessions at Temple University Hospital (TUH). The sessions, hosted every month by Temple Lung Center specialists, permits COPD patients to openly share their innermost thoughts, ideas, concerns, and suggestions with others who face the same or similar health-related challenges.
Shortly after getting to know each other, Clark invited Oberton to attend a Temple support meeting. "After one meeting, I was hooked," recalled the newly recruited Oberton. "We talk about things that really matter to us, like how to pay for prescriptions if you're not able to work fulltime anymore, and how to prepare for the rest of your life after you get a lung transplant."
Transitioning to Transplantation
As Clark and Oberton continued to battle their COPD, their conditions worsened – and both were added to the 'wait list' for Temple's Lung Transplant Program, which has performed more than 108 life-saving transplants in the past five years.
Of course, the men were in very good hands. "With our excellent multi-disciplinary team, I am confident that we offer one of the best lung transplant programs in the world," says Yoshiya Toyoda, MD, Temple's Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery and Surgical Director of Heart and Lung Transplantation.
Max Clark went first – undergoing a double-lung transplant procedure at Temple in May of 2010. "He has done well in the four years since his procedure," says James Mamary, MD, his Temple pulmonologist. "He stays active mentally and physically … and tells me how he grows exotic plants in his home and attends folk music festivals," he adds.
His transplant buddy, John Oberton, soon followed – with Dr. Toyoda performing that double-lung transplant surgery on March 23, 2013. "Since his transplant, I’ve watched him focus his energy – taking care of himself as well as helping others around him, like when shoveling snow from his neighbor's driveway," reports his physician, Namrata Patel, MD, Associate Medical Director of Lung Transplantation. "It's really rewarding to see how much his life has changed since transplant. He is making wonderful use of this gift by doing what he needs to keep well and to help others – particularly those struggling with lung disease as he once was."
As Oberton recovered at home, he also spent some quiet time reflecting on the precious gift he had been given as a result of the organ-donation process. Like most transplant recipients, the moment of being told that his new lungs were available was bittersweet – he felt joy for the promise of a new life that awaited him, and profound sadness for the grief of the family who had lost a loved one. He began to put his thoughts into a "thank you" letter that would be shared with the donor's family. "It was the most difficult letter I wrote in my life," he said. "I had a Word document open on my computer for about a month. Finally, I just wrote it from my heart."
Second Chance at Life
Today, Oberton says he "feels reborn … like I have a second chance at life!" "I couldn't have made it through everything without the support of Max [Clark], another friend Joe Sacco, the Temple support group, and Temple's entire remarkable team," he adds. "Temple feels like a second home!"