TAMPA — Three weeks ago, Enock Mezilas received the ultimate gift — a lung transplant made possible by people who read about his plight and responded with generosity. His days since, while difficult and painful, have been hopeful.
Later this week, the 20-year-old expects to leave Tampa General Hospital, where doctors once warned he could die because his family didn't have the $10,000 needed to save his life.
Everything changed for him, thanks to 525 donors who gave from $5 to $10,000 each toward his medical expenses. Three people each contributed $10,000, which hospital officials had set as a minimum to move forward with the transplant. The fundraising total: $133,500.
Mezilas received lungs from an out-of-state donor in a matter of days; the surgery took nine hours, ending the morning of May 14.
His pain is sometimes excruciating. Last week, a small cough left him clutching his ribs and whispering hoarsely, "My chest, my chest." Since the surgery, weight has melted off his already lanky body. Some of his medications make him so tired that he can barely keep his eyes open.
Recovery from lung transplant surgery is difficult, said Angie Korsun, administrator of the transplant program at Tampa General. The lungs are particularly delicate organs that can be damaged at any point during surgery or recovery. Each breath exposes them to the outside environment — and possible infection.
After a double lung transplant, patients commonly are hospitalized for two to four weeks, Korsun said. It can be months before patients feel normal.
"You suddenly become aware of muscles that you didn't know you had," she said. Breathing deeply and coughing become painful ordeals. Plus, the sicker the patient was before surgery, the longer it can take to recover.
Mezilas is regaining strength. He is walking and talking. To prepare for his discharge, hospital workers are teaching Mezilas and his mother about the regimen of candy-colored pills that he must take daily. His weekly pill organizer is the size of a cafeteria tray. In time, his medication count will go down, but he will always have to take costly anti-rejection drugs.
Doctors had thought that Mezilas could be discharged late last week, but they decided that he needed a few more days of surveillance.
"I'm not rushing," said his mother, Ilna Pierre, who will be away from their family home in Fort Lauderdale for the next three months, caring for Mezilas in Tampa as he receives follow-up care. "I have so much time."
Not long ago, time was running out for Mezilas, whose lungs were destroyed by a medical condition that was misdiagnosed for years.
His parents both work, and his father has health insurance through his employment as a maintenance worker. But they still could not afford the costly post-operative drugs and care that Mezilas would need, and so he could not qualify for the surgery until funds were secured.
Mezilas and his family, originally from Haiti, are legal immigrants. But they had mistakenly waited to get a green card for their son, leaving him ineligible for government aid.
After an article in the St. Petersburg Times and tbt* and on tampabay.com, money poured into a fund for his transplant-related expenses administered by the National Transplant Assistance Fund.
Mezilas still finds it difficult to speak at length, so he and his family composed a letter to express their appreciation to everyone who has helped him.
"This is a different kind of 'thank you.' It is a 'thank you' that defies English, or any language," they say in it. "Without your participation, Enock would not be alive today.
"To the organ donor, (we) would like to thank you so much for saving (Enock's) life. Because of you, (he is) alive to see another day.''
The gifts they have received go well beyond money, they write.
"Take time for people; make them feel special; learn to appreciate them because here at Tampa General Hospital the employees showed Enock and (his mother) LOVE — from the top down to housekeeping. (We) love you guys.''
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.