UNC Health Care

Man who received double-lung transplant at UNC Hospitals to compete in 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship

Scott Johnson has come a long, long way since September 2001, when he lay in a bed at UNC Hospitals waiting for the double-lung transplant that he needed to save his life.

Since walking out of the hospital with a new pair of lungs, Johnson, a 35-year-old resident of the area around Wilmington, N.C., has completed dozens of shorter triathlons, started in three Ironman triathlons and completed Ford Ironman Florida in November 2006.

Finishing Ironman Florida earned Johnson a slot in the invitation-only 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship, which takes place Saturday, Oct. 13 at Kailua-Kona in Hawaii. According to race organizers, Johnson will be the first double-lung transplant recipient ever to compete in triathlon’s most famous and prestigious race.

Dr. James Yankaskas, a pulmonary specialist at UNC who has treated Johnson since before his transplant surgery, said that Johnson’s story is truly inspirational, especially to others who, like Johnson, have cystic fibrosis.

“In just a few short years Scott has transformed himself from someone who had to use an oxygen tank just so he could breathe to someone who has completed one of the most grueling athletic events in the world.”

“In just a few short years Scott has transformed himself from someone who had to use an oxygen tank just so he could breathe to someone who has completed one of the most grueling athletic events in the world,” Yankaskas said. “What he has accomplished is totally amazing to me.”

For Johnson himself, he expects race day to be filled with mixed emotions.

“It still blows my mind to think that I am getting ready for the hardest single-day endurance event in the world with someone else’s lungs inside me,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of people to thank for helping me get to where I am, especially my donor, their family, my doctors, and my friends and family. It is truly an honor for me to be representing the cystic fibrosis and organ tranplantation communities.”

When the race is over, Johnson and his fiancee, who is also a triathlete, will stay on in Hawaii to have their wedding three days later.

Johnson’s participation in the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championship is the culmination of a path that he embarked upon under the most dire of circumstances. By July 2001 the only treatment option left that could save his life was a double-lung transplant operation. So, he was admitted into UNC Hospitals and began the long, uncertain wait for a set of donor lungs to become available. He had to wait for more than 2 months before his surgery finally took place, just a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Afterwards, his doctors told him that without the transplant, he probably would not have lived more than another week.

While he lay waiting in his hospital bed, Johnson wrote down a list of things he wanted to do if he survived. The first item on his list? “Do a triathlon,” a feat that he was physically not able to do before his transplant surgery because of his poor lung function.

What he had in mind at the time, Johnson said, was to do just one shorter distance triathlon. But that first triathlon was so much fun that he wanted to get out and do another one as quickly as possible. And then that led to another, and another, and another, until by 2005 he was invited to compete in Ironman New Zealand, a race that is also a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis.

Johnson was forced to drop out of that race before reaching the finish line, which he attributes to mistakes in his eating and drinking during the race. Then in November 2005 he took part in Ford Ironman Florida, but once again was forced to abandon early after suffering a torn leg muscle during the bike ride.

Johnson was forced to drop out of that race before reaching the finish line, which he attributes to mistakes in his eating and drinking during the race.

But one year later, in November 2006, Johnson took on Ironman Florida once again and finally realized his dream of completing an Ironman race. For that accomplishment, he received the Ford Everyday Hero award and an invitation to the big dance in Hawaii.

Media contact: Stephanie Crayton, (919) 966-2860 or scrayton@unch.unc.edu

ABOUT UNC HEALTH CARE
The UNC Health Care System is a not-for-profit integrated health care system owned by the state of North Carolina and based in Chapel Hill. It exists to further the teaching mission of the University of North Carolina and to provide state-of-the-art patient care. UNC Health Care is comprised of UNC Hospitals, which is ranked among the top 50 in the nation in six specialties by U.S. News & World Report and ranked one of the country’s 41 best on the Leapfrog 2007 Top Hospitals list; the UNC School of Medicine, a nationally eminent research institution; community practices; home health and hospice services in seven central North Carolina counties; and Rex Healthcare and its provider network in Wake County. UNC Health Care also manages Chatham Hospital in Siler City.