Clear79° WeatherClear79° Weather

After lung transplant young man takes life one breath at a time

FORT LAUDERDALE

Enock Mezilas' first shot fell short of the hoop by several feet. His kid brother Standley chased after the basketball, rebounding it back. Enock took a deep breath and shot again.

The ball landed with a thud. Still short.

The lanky 20-year-old kept shooting, playing hard enough to work up a sweat on this warm November afternoon. His arms were heavy, but he could feel that they were growing stronger. So were his new lungs. So was he.

Finally, a shot swished through the net. Enock grinned.

"I'm starting to see results," he said later.

He still hasn't beat his teenage brother on the court, but he can claim victory all the same.

The last time he was able to play basketball, Enock was in the 10th grade.

• • •

He arrived at Tampa General Hospital in April in a wheelchair. He struggled to speak. He was suffocating for lack of oxygen. Without a lung transplant, doctors said, he wouldn't leave the hospital alive.

His family's insurance covered transplant surgery in Tampa, though not at a hospital closer to their home near Fort Lauderdale. Still, his parents, a maintenance worker and a home health aide, couldn't afford the copays for the costly antirejection drugs that he would need for the rest of his life.

Ilna Pierre and Herold Mezilas had immigrated legally from the Bahamas when their eldest child was 9, but they didn't realize he needed a green card too. So when he got sick, Enock didn't qualify for state or federal medical assistance.

"The kid had no other options," said Tampa transplant pulmonologist Tarik Haddad. "He fell through the cracks."

• • •

Enock was 13 when the shortness of breath started. Doctors blamed asthma. But treatments were no help.

Then they diagnosed him with tuberculosis. Eventually, a lung biopsy revealed the real problem — a rare and extreme case of acid reflux, which had bubbled up into his lungs.

By the time the reflux was fixed surgically, Enock's lungs were damaged beyond repair.

"Sometimes I thought my life was going to end, but I just kept fighting," said Enock, who finished the final credit for his high school diploma the month before he came to Tampa.

"I came this close to death, but God gave me the will to live."

At Tampa General, social workers asked the family to come up with at least $10,000 to see Enock through the surgery and short-term recovery. But his parents, already tapped out caring for Enock and his two siblings, had no more resources. Their story resonated deeply with readers of the St. Petersburg Times.

In all, readers donated more than $139,000.

• • •

Enock got his new lungs on May 14, soon after a set of donor lungs was flown to Tampa from out of state.

The surgeon made a wave-shaped cut across Enock's torso to reach the lungs through his sternum, as though opening a clamshell.

Enock was in surgery for nine hours.

All Enock ever learned about the donor was that he died in prison in another state, giving a second chance to a young man he would never know.

After the operation, Enock could breathe more easily. But then his lungs filled with fluid, and his sternum buckled, sending him back to the operating room twice. Even a weak cough left him clutching a pillow to his chest in agony.

On a bright afternoon in mid June, Enock felt the sun on his skin as he walked out of Tampa General for the first time in almost two months.

He left with a pill box the size of a cafeteria tray. Narcotics dulled the pain but left him groggy and nauseous.

A glass of apple juice was enough to fill him up because his appetite was so poor. The pain kept him up at night.

"Lung transplant is killer," he whispered hoarsely days after his discharge.

The Butterfly House, a special home near Tampa General for lung transplant patients, provided free lodging for Enock and his family. To pass the long days, he stared at old basketball games on TV he'd seen before. Standley, 16, and little sister Jasmine, 12, helped him channel surf when he wasn't up to talking.

Two months after the surgery, Enock felt well enough to help himself to drinks from the kitchen fridge. He walked easily up and down the stairs.

His diploma arrived from his Broward County high school, which he'd left in his junior year when his health declined. He got a haircut and posed for a photograph in a borrowed graduation gown.

In August, four months after he came to Tampa, doctors sent him home, instructing him to wear a surgical mask in crowded places to avoid infections. Enock donned a mask just to get into the family minivan.

• • •

Back home a few weeks later, Enock stood in the driveway of his family's house and could see the sign for the Stop 'N Shop Jamaican Grocery.

He hadn't walked to the store in a year and a half.

Now as he walked, Enock noticed every detail — the breeze in his hair, the birds overhead, the brown leaves on the asphalt. He left the store with fruit juice, chips, bubble gum and a Jamaican beef patty.

"I felt relief," he said. "I felt a new life beginning."

Before long, his mother was complaining that she couldn't keep up on their 2-mile Saturday walks. She had to get used to having her son in the kitchen, helping to prepare his favorite spaghetti and meatballs.

For first time in months, he went to the movies with his cousins, unfettered by an oxygen tank. Relatives who remembered how he needee needed help navigating the eight steps from his bedroom to the bathroom cried out in disbelief at his new mobility.

Enock began a list of things he wanted to do. He had never been bowling. He wondered about roller skating. He wanted to get his driver's license.

"I'm pretty much making up for what I couldn't do in my teenage years," he said.

• • •

Enock's doctor is confident about his prognosis, noting that lung transplant patients can live at least 15 or 20 years. Maybe if the current lungs give out, he could get another set. Maybe they'll last.

But Enock knows a respiratory infection could become life-threatening at any time. The antirejection medications he takes leave him vulnerable to cancer.

And like any child who grew up with a serious illness, Enock has to figure out how to restart a life that hasn't been normal for years.

Enock stays in touch with several of the many doctors and nurses who have treated him over the years. He's excited about going to a Miami Dolphins game with a favorite hospital aide next month.

His mom wants her son to enjoy growing up like any other young man.

"I want him to have someone to call, to see, to go to the movies and to the beach with," said his mother, who can't wait for him to bring home a girlfriend. "He is a good boy, and I want him to get certain good things."

But Enock can't even recall where he went three years ago, when he was last able to go out on a date. Ask him what kind of woman he'd like to meet, and he answers bashfully — someone classy.

What he really wants to talk about is returning to the Fort Lauderdale hospital where he has spent weeks of his life. He'd like to counsel other young people needing transplants.

"Sometimes they get depressed and are overwhelmed with sickness. I understand how it is," he said. "I just hope to share my story, that if you have hope, believe in God, that everything will turn out well.

"Sometimes you have go to through hard times. But you struggle to achieve your goals," he said. "I know a lot of people older than me that don't know that stuff."

• • •

With a black Yankees cap, earbuds and a backpack, Enock could have passed for any college-age kid waiting at a bus stop.

Except for the white surgical mask.

He and his mother were taking a $1.75 bus ride rather than a $20-plus cab from the airport to the $50-a-night University Inn on Kennedy Boulevard. He must come back to Tampa monthly for checkups, and travel is expensive.

The national organization overseeing the donations made to Enock scrutinizes disbursements, as the fund must last a long time. Enock keeps track of expenses in his medical binder as meticulously as he records his vital signs — weight, blood pressure, lung function.

He wishes he didn't need to ask for the money, but he is so grateful for it.

"I'm a very strong person. I didn't want people to feel sorry for me. I just wanted support," he said. "If it weren't for God, the pulmonologists and the Tampa community helping out, I don't know where I would be right now."

On his latest Tampa General visit, he impressed the transplant team with his progress in physical therapy. Twice a week, Enock has been lifting weights. He has started running and bicycling.

No one asked him about college, but Enock isn't in a rush to enroll. Maybe next fall, after he completes the rehab therapy.

He has studied for his driver's license, but hasn't made an appointment to take the test. Maybe by the end of the year.

He's content just to be breathing easier with every visit.

"So life's good?" Dr. Haddad asked Enock in the examining room.

Enock grinned at the doctor who once told him he was dying.

"Real good."

Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330.

Help others

The nonprofit group One Breath at a Time helps to support lung transplant patients at Tampa General Hospital, which recently performed its 300th lung transplant. The organization has created the Butterfly House, where patients and families from outside the area can stay. To learn more or to contribute, visit onebreathatatime.net.

After lung transplant young man takes life one breath at a time 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 7:30am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...