As a child, Howell Graham was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that often impairs lung function. By his late 20s, Howell would lose his breath doing things as routine as brushing his teeth.
So he underwent a risky operation — in 1990, he had a double lung transplant. And today, Howell, 49, is one of the longest-surviving recipients of that surgery. Recently, Howell and his mother, Nan, talked about a few moments when it seemed like he might not make it.
"I remember waking up from the surgery being on the vent [a ventilator], and seeing this absolutely beautiful brunette nurse," Howell says. "She held my hand her entire shift."
As he recovered, Howell drifted in and out of consciousness. And the next time he woke up, the hospital shifts had changed.
Then, he recalls, "a male nurse came in — this big burly dude," as his mother laughs. "And I was not happy at all."
Howell could not yet speak, as the ventilator helped him breathe. But he had a pen and paper.
"I just was writing notes like, 'Get him the heck out of here,' and 'I don't want this guy. Get me the girl back,'" he says.
"Lots of cursing," Nan remembers. "Lots of cursing."
"Lots of cursing," Howell agrees. "And my dad was tearing up the notes, because he was scared the male nurse would find the notes and kill me. So he spent his time intercepting my hate notes."
"Which is kind of understandable," Nan says.
After a month, Howell was able to leave the hospital.
"And when you got home, things were going well," Nan says.
"Well, things were going fantastic," Howell says.
His recovery was going so well that Howell took his father's 17-foot boat out — "thinking I knew what I was doing," he says.
"I ended up jumping out of the boat. And the boat got away from me, and it's too far to swim. And I really thought I was going to drown."
"Six months out of a double lung transplant," his mother says.
Howell says he was worried — but not just about possibly drowning.
"The first thing that popped in my mind was Dr. Egan, who's kind of a little fireball," he says, "how mad he was going to be that he had given me this transplant — and I blew it just being stupid."
"You said, 'He would have killed me!'" Nan remembers. "And I said, 'He would have had to get in line.' Your father and I would have been the first in line to kill you for this. We worked 28 years; he worked 12 hours."
"Yeah," Howell says.
After his surgery, Howell overcame a ruptured appendix; he is also a colon cancer survivor.
And more than 20 years after receiving his transplant, Howell says, "These are my lungs. And it's pretty amazing to have made it that far out. I've just been a lucky person."
"Life is good," Nan says.
"Life is good," Howell agrees.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman.