Man thankful for a new breath of life

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CHICAGO -- Tenacity. When medical challenges get you down, think back on this story.

A diagnosis with little hope. Then a cure. But the cure carried a life-threatening result. Tonight a young man and his surgeon show us all why giving up is not an option.

The physical therapy is welcome work for 32-year-old Patrick Halko.

“You go six and a half years without being able to breathe you forget what it’s like to live a normal life. The last two years I’ve laid in bed for Thanksgiving,” Halko says.

Not this year. It wasn’t at home, but Patrick and his family pulled off a Thanksgiving feast in his room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“This year I have so much to be thankful for,” Halko says. "I had this cough that wouldn’t go away. They ended up taking a blood test, and the first people who took my blood they actually thought the machine was broken. They are looking at me like I’m a ghost. They couldn’t believe I was alive."

Patrick’s alarming test results led to a diagnosis: at 24 years old he had a rare and life-threatening blood disease. His doctor recommended a stem cell transplant. Then a major setback: Patrick suffered graft versus host disease. The newly transplanted cells that had cured his blood disease were attacking his body – first his skin, then his lungs.

His last chance was a lung transplant, but before he could begin the evaluation process he was placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit – but Northwestern medicine transplant surgeon Ankit Bharat made sure it was one that would allow him to be awake and moving.

“For Patrick we had a customized plan. So he was walking on the vent, he was up on the chair conversant and participating in his care,” Bharat says.

A process that would typically require months of investigation was carried out in a matter of days. That same week a donor was identified.

Said Halko:

 “They just barged in the room and said ‘You gotta go now!’ My whole family was there. We were just cruising downstairs and next thing I know we’re in the operating room. One hour after a nine-hour surgery I was awake and alert. It’s only been three weeks since the transplant. Yesterday I walked halfway around this entire place. Today I walked all the way around. I’m improving so fast. I can take deep breaths, and I can feel oxygen running through my body. Every day now is absolute best day of my life.”

Patrick -- who was studying physical therapy before all of his medical setbacks -- is now even more determined to help others. And he has one more important task, he plans on writing the donor’s family when is he’s allowed in one year to thank them for the breath of life.