UW’s first double lung transplant still breathing easy 20 years later

UW’s first double lung transplant still breathing easy 20 years later
Ken Price has ridden in the Seattle to Portland bike race eight times since having a double lung transplant. (Courtesy Ken Price)

SEATTLE -- On July 8, 1993, Ken Price took his first deep breath in years. Having lived with cystic fibrosis since he was just 1 year old, Price was the first cystic fibrosis patient at the University of Washington Medical Center to receive a double lung transplant. In the 20 years since then, Price and his lungs have won tennis tournaments, rode his bike from Seattle to Portland eight times and run a marathon.

“Without the amazing gift of my donor family, the nurses, doctors, clinicians, pharmacists, I would have been dead 20 years ago,” Price said.

Lungs are one of the most difficult organs to transplant. Only about one in five from deceased donors is viable for transplantation. About 55 percent of patients survive five years post-transplant and a third live 10 years.

“To be one of the earliest lung transplant patients, and to survive 20 years with these same lungs, is quite remarkable,” says Kevin O’Connor, CEO of LifeCenter Northwest. “Ken’s active lifestyle, positive outlook, and amazing survival story are an inspiration to us all.”

When Price was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, Pennsylvania doctors told his parents he wouldn’t live past the age of 10. If his life was going to be short, Price’s parents wanted it to be as close to normal as possible.  They sent him outside to play and encouraged him to pursue all his interests.

Price was healthy until he contracted double pneumonia at 13. His health and lungs were never the same after that. He suffered infections, a decline in lung function and a severe loss of energy. He was told he might live into his late-20s. But Price went on to Cornell University, grad school at Stanford, and moved to Seattle to work as an aerodynamicist for Boeing upon graduation. 

That’s when Price heard about a groundbreaking heart-lung transplant on a person with cystic fibrosis, performed at Johns Hopkins. Price was referred to several lung transplant centers across the country, but no one would take him. His case was too high risk.

“I was getting close to the end of my road,” Price said. “I couldn’t work. I was on 24-hour oxygen with no hope of it ever getting better except for the possibility of a transplant.”

Then, the University of Washington Medical Center started its own lung transplant center. Price was placed on their waiting list on January 11, 1993. Six months later, shortly after his 30th birthday, Price received a double lung transplant. 

Just three weeks after the transplant Price was out of the hospital running, biking and flying. He got his pilot license, started a successful business, lived in a foreign country and earned another advanced degree. Price completed his first full marathon on January 11, 2009; sixteen years to the day after he was put on the waiting list for a lung transplant.

“My life has been amazing because of the transplant,” Price said. “I have felt fabulous for over 20 years.”

Price says he does his part to stay healthy – exercising, eating well and getting plenty of sleep – but he mostly credits his lifespan to the doctors who care for him and the family of his lung donor.

“The generosity that they showed by taking the biggest tragedy they could have gone through and having the courage and compassion to help other people out is amazing.”

Price continues to give back to the community as a regular volunteer for LifeCenter Northwest, using his story as a tool to educate about the beneficial impact of organ donation.

Before the year ends, Price plans to run a half-marathon. He would have done another full, but he is happy to report he has lived long enough to develop knee problems.

“I’m happy to be suffering old-people problems. I never thought that would happen!”