May 9, 2021

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‘I didn’t have very long to live’ | Health Beat

Flash back. March 14, 2003. Jim Oldfield crawled out of bed at 5 a.m.

“I went out to the garage and had a cigarette and coffee,” the Byron Center, Michigan, resident said. “I looked at my watch as I snuffed out my cigarette and it said 5:35. Right then I went black. When I came to, I crawled back into the house.”

Oldfield’s wife, Deb, drove him to an urgent care facility.

Oldfield, now 69, recalled he wanted her to stop by his software publishing office so he could leave a note that he wouldn’t be coming in.

“Deb was smart enough to not stop,” he said. “I passed out again as I got out of the car at the urgent care. They called an ambulance and brought me to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

“On the way to the hospital, I was flat-lining a lot. When I got into the ER, that was my last chance. I was really not too coherent at that point. I was pretty much out of my senses.”

A surgeon came in and explained stents, which were in their infancy in those days.

“He said, ‘Jim, if I don’t fix you, you’re going to die,’” Oldfield said. “On the Ides of March, March 15 in the morning, I got triple bypass surgery.”

He underwent about eight weeks of cardio rehab at Spectrum Health.

“I decided I didn’t want to go through anything like that again, so I changed my lifestyle,” he said.

Lifestyle change

After 37 years of smoking and years of weighing 200 pounds, the 5-foot-6 Oldfield bought a bike and hired a trainer.

He worked up to “century” rides of 100 miles or more.

He trained to swim and run and compete in triathlons and Ironman competitions.

“With Ironman races you have to train a lot and really hard,” he said. “I was complaining and asked my trainer to lighten up a little bit. He asked, ‘Has anything I’ve done to you hurt more than the heart attack?’”

The inspiration stuck. And spread.

In 2008, Oldfield became a founding board member of the Ironheart Foundation, an organization geared toward people who have heart disease, and either are, or want to become, athletes.

The foundation distributes $500 or more each year for high school students affected by heart disease. The Jim Oldfield True Grit Scholarship bears his name.

After countless Ironman and triathlon competitions, Oldfield then faced a competitor he could not beat—shortness of breath and breathing issues.

In 2017, doctors diagnosed him with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which affects about 100,000 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health.

“They gave me less than a year,” he said. “It was getting worse. Doing training and weights and all that stuff, I knew my body pretty well. I knew something was seriously wrong. The bad part came. I didn’t have very long to live.”

By 2018, even oxygen tanks didn’t help much.

“We couldn’t get enough air tanks in my home to keep me alive,” Oldfield said. “It started getting bad fast. I couldn’t sleep in bed. I had to sit up in a chair to breathe.

“It was really depressing,” he said. “You walk through it shell-shocked, like every day is your last day.”

Nick of time

Fortunately, a last-gasp hope happened.

On July 13, 2018, he joined the lung transplant list.

“Spectrum Health has a great way of qualifying people to be able to get lungs,” he said. “I took all of their tests and prayed they accepted me. The thing all the doctors told me was if I hadn’t changed my lifestyle, they wouldn’t have accepted me.”

At 4:30 a.m. Sept. 4, 2018, his phone rang.

The voice on the other end said, “Jim, we have a pair of lungs for you.”

In the nick of time.

Only 20% of his lung capacity remained.

In the week prior to the call, Oldfield said he hadn’t slept at all. He couldn’t get enough air. He feared if he fell asleep he would die.

“The next thing they were going to have to do was put me in a coma to wait for the lungs,” he said. “I wasn’t doing well at all.”

The lung transplant changed all that, quickly.

“They rolled me into the operating room at 10 at night (Sept. 5, 2018) and I don’t remember anything until I woke up,” he said. “The difference was immediate when I took my first deep breath. It felt so sweet, I wish I could explain it. I was panting just to breathe previously. To take a long, slow breath was just heaven.”

After 13 days in the hospital and rehabilitation to build his lung strength, Oldfield started gaining strength and vitality.

He can’t swim in lakes because of bacteria, but he’s working his way back toward competition by swimming in pools, biking and working out in his home gym.

He takes no moments for granted these days. Like races, life is fleeting, with unknown finish lines.

“This past June I was diagnosed with AML, a rare form of leukemia,” he said. “As I did with my heart attack and bypass surgery, I am fighting to keep fit.”

He appreciates the love that surrounds him.

“I am blessed by being able to have the help and strength of others,” he said.

Andrea Katt, RN, Oldfield’s lung transplant coordinator, said his physical fitness regimen helped him survive.

“Jim is amazing,” Katt said. “He’s been through so much. Jim was, and is, highly motivated by his physical fitness. He has competed in a few Ironmans pre-transplant and his dream was to compete in one after transplant.

“Anything he could do after transplant to get back into physical condition to compete was his main focus and motivation.”

She marvels at Oldfield’s commitment to staying in shape.

“On Jim’s one-year (transplant) anniversary, he took his first swim in a local pool,” Katt said. “We were all so thrilled for him and the progress he was determined to make to get to this point.”

Oldfield’s future is bright and strong, Katt said.

The support of his wife and sons has been especially helpful in his recovery.

“Jim is thriving,” Katt said. “He is in great pulmonary health and his lung function continues to increase. We are so proud of him and his dedication to staying active and to not lose his contagious positive attitude.”