Boone man prepares for lung transplant
Anthony Howell does not know what it’s like to breathe easy.
The 22-year-old Boone native suffers from cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening disorder that leads to breathing difficulties and digestion problems due to mucus buildup in the lungs and pancreas.
The once-active young man spends his time in and
out of hospitals and following a strict treatment regimen that requires him to use oxygen
But there’s a nervous excitement in his voice these days as he prepares hopefully for a lung transplant that could relieve his debilitating and frustrating condition.
“It’s a real bummer because I’m young, 22 years old, and I can’t do hardly anything,” Howell said. “There’s a lot of elderly people that can outdo me. It’s rough, and so that’s why I’m hoping to get this transplant.”
Doctors diagnosed Howell with cystic fibrosis when he was 14 months old. In most patients, the unpreventable disease slowly worsens lung function until the person is disabled.
Despite the diagnosis, Howell enjoyed an active childhood, playing football from third-grade through freshman year and wrestling during eighth and ninth grades.
He rode bulls for four years starting at age 13, and every chance he got, he would visit his uncle in Lake Wylie, S.C., to swim and Jet Ski.
Since he was doing so well, Howell often didn’t let people know about his condition, he said.
But every now and then, his condition would worsen. In 2004, Howell underwent emergency surgery to repair part of his intestine that collapsed from the effects of cystic fibrosis.
Howell attended Parkway School before graduating from Watauga High School in 2010. His family includes his mother and stepfather, Shelley and Jerry Huggins, and his 16-year-old sister, Ashlyn. His father, Trey Howell, died in 2007.
“Right before I graduated high school, it just kind of went downhill,” Howell said of his condition.
Today, he relies on three times-a-day treatments, nebulizers and costly antibiotics and medications before every meal to keep his body moving. His lung function has fallen to about 20 percent, he said.
“In the morning it’s really rough,” Howell said. “It takes me about an hour and a half to do everything.”
On top of the daily treatments, Howell has faced frequent hospitalizations for flare-ups during the past several years. Last year, he was admitted nine times, spending his 21st birthday and Christmas in the hospital.
While the prospect makes him nervous, Howell said he is excited about the possibility of a lung transplant. Doctors inserted a feeding tube last month to help him gain weight in anticipation of surgery. After that occurs, he’ll be put on the transplant waiting list.
Once on the list, the average wait time for a new set of lungs is 19 days, he said.
A lung transplant at Duke University Medical Center will cost about $550,000. While most of the transplant expenses will be covered by insurance, the hospital requires that families demonstrate that they have money raised for additional costs, said Huggins, his mother. The family is hoping to raise $25,000.
The two are currently looking for a place to rent in Durham, as they have to remain within 30 minutes of the hospital.
After the surgery he will likely stay four to six months for recovery and rehabilitation, she said.
The family also will face hefty co-pays for medications — some as high as $1,200 or $1,300 — and travel expenses.
Although the situation often feels like a heavy burden, Huggins said she and her family work to stay in good spirits and pray for the best.
They’re looking forward to a day when Howell can pursue his goals, which may include enrolling in WyoTech to become a marine mechanic.
“I’ll tell you, he’s got a good attitude, and attitude has a lot to do with this,” Huggins said.