Mt. Pleasant man needs transplant to live
There are days when the coughing jags hit Dave Sullenberger so hard and for so long that he can barely breathe.
It's the most glaring symptom of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
“Otherwise, you can look at me and think there is nothing wrong with me,” said Sullenberger, 60, his hand resting on an oxygen tank he must constantly use. “But when I have days like that when I just can't stop coughing, it takes everything out of me.”
In 2009, Sullenberger was diagnosed with the disease with no known cure.
Those afflicted suffer from lungs and air sacs which become scarred and stiff and unable to pass oxygen to the bloodstream, he said.
“That means everything in my body is affected by it, not just my lungs,” he said.
However, Sullenberger rarely takes a day off from his job at the Mt. Pleasant-area plant of Scottdale-based National Hydraulics Inc., the business where he has labored for more than three decades as a journeyman machinist.
“For me, my work is a point of pride,” said Sullenberger recently from the Ramsay Terrace home he shares with his beloved wife, Dianne. “And I have a wonderful employer.”
David K. Hower, the business's proprietor, recently ensured Sullenberger could continue to work there despite his health issues by reassigning him from the shop to an office job performing estimating and drafting tasks.
“Dave is what I classify as a model employee; it's as simple as that. He always has been,” Hower said. “Loyal, very caring ... just a good all-around man. I wish I had 100 more like him.”
In June, physician Kevin F. Gibson, the medical director of the Dorothy P. and Richard P. Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, sat the Sullenbergers down for a hard talk.
“Dr. Gibson was reviewing the results of a chest x-ray that was taken of my lungs. He went over my scan, showed us what it looked like on the computer, and it was quite obvious that my lungs are pretty well shot,” Sullenberger said.
Gibson then told Sullenberger he must undergo a double-lung transplant to continue to live.
“For me, the transplant is the only option,” uttered Sullenberger softly while gripping the hand of his wife. “I am trading my disease for a set of problems that they can manage medically with drugs.”
As Sullenberger awaits word of a potential donor, he and his family and friends are doing everything they can to raise money to pay for the many anticipated medical costs he will face in the event that he undergoes a transplant.
“It could be two days or it could be seven months, you just don't know,” said Sullenberger said.
While Sullenberger said his insurance will cover the cost of the operation — which averages $800,000 — he faces untold medical costs associated with all follow-up care and daily, anti-rejection medications which are as critical to his survival of transplant.
In addition, Dianne Sullenberger has arranged to take an extended leave from her full-time job at Cintas Corp. to provide constant care for her husband once his surgery is complete.
“God has dealt us this situation for some reason, and He has taken care of us so far, so we believe He will going forward,” Dianne Sullenberger said.
On Saturday, a “Breakfast with Santa” fundraiser will be held in honor of Sullenberger from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at Reunion Presbyterian Church, located at 769 Main St. in Mt. Pleasant.
The cost of admission is $5 per adult and $3 per child.
Walk-ins are welcome.
“We certainly won't be turning anyone away,” said Sullenberger's daughter, Lissa Sullenberger Ladowitz, who is helping to organize the event.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the National Foundation for Transplants, a Memphis-based organization which is working with volunteers and supporters to help relieve Sullenberger's future expenses.
The money the foundation receives via fundraisers like the one scheduled in Sullenberger's honor is not considered taxable income to the patient, said Emily Joyner, the foundation's spokeswoman.
“When the patient has a medical, pharmaceutical or insurance payment, the bill either comes to us or we reimburse the patient with money already paid out of funds they have raised,” Joyner said. “We have about 1,000 patients who are considered actively fundraising. Last year, we helped about 2,500 patients.”
Sullenberger said he is driven to continue battling his circumstances, in large part, by his two granddaughters — Paige Ladowitz, 9, and her younger sister, 5-year-old Kayla Ladowitz — who know him as “Pappy.”
“I live each day by this motto: ‘The stuggle you are in today is developing the strength you will need for tomorrow',” he said.
Sullenberger said he has found solace and perspective in the friendship he has forged with Karen Newill of United. Newill, 35, is also in need of a double lung transplant due to her ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis, which she was diagnosed with at age 13.
“The thing about Karen is that she understands the situation I'm in better than most,” Sullenberger said.
Volunteers are raising funds in Newill's honor for the Children's Organ Transplant Association — a national charity dedicated to organizing and guiding communities in raising funds for transplant-related expenses.Tuesday will mark five months on the transplant list for Newill, and she said she and her supporters have already raised approximately $32,000 for COTA.
“Dave is just starting his fundraising, so I am trying to give him good ideas about how to raise that money,” Newill said. “His goal is $25,000, and we cleared that in three months.”
Newill said she and Sullenberger share a hope that each will undergo the transplant procedure at the same time.
“I think it sort of brings us together ... this is how it is, this is how we are feeling, and it's okay,” she said. “He's really positive about everything, and I just can't believe he is still working.”
Wade Miller, Sullenberger's brother-in-law, and his wife, Sue, are coordinating Saturday's event.
“Fortunately, Dave lives in a time where the technology enables (transplants) to happen and that people are generous enough to donate their organs,” Sue Miller said. “He's struggled for years with this, it would be nice to see him breathe normally again.”
Those wishing to make a tax-deductible donation on Sullenberger's behalf to the National Foundation for Transplants can do so via check or credit card. Donors are asked to make checks payable to NFT Pennsylvania Transplant Fund and to write “In honor of Dave Sullenberger” on the memo line.
To make a secure online donation, donors are asked to visit the NFT website at www.transplants.org, then click on the icon labled “Find an NFT Patient,” and search for Dave Sullenberger.
Those interested in learning about other planned NTF fundraisers in Sullenberger's honor are asked to visit the initiative's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NewLungsForDave.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.