By Bobby Hundley
Ian Ferguson has never lived a conventional life.
The oldest of five children, Ferguson was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 15, well beyond the usual time frame for identifying the disease. Despite this potentially devastating diagnosis, Ferguson maintained an active and healthy lifestyle into his 20s before the symptoms of his CF started to mount.
Dogged by persistent collapsed lungs – Ferguson estimates he required more than a dozen chest tube insertions – the condition eventually reached the point where surgery became necessary. Only one surgeon was willing to perform the needed procedure without disqualifying Ferguson from future transplant candidacy – Dr. Thomas Egan at UNC.
Creating A Bond
Dr. Egan performed the surgery to repair a lung tear in 1992. But while the operation provided some initial relief, complications continued to arise. Infections requiring IV antibiotics were common, and the inpatient treatment cycles were requiring hospital stays of up to six weeks at a time. The physical and mental stress of becoming a father for the first time in 1994 only exacerbated the issues.
His experience in 1992 created a bond to Dr. Egan as well as to UNC and Chapel Hill. Dr. Egan was quickly drawn to Ferguson’s curious nature and dry sense of humor as a patient. And while it felt like an admission of defeat at the time, Ferguson joined the lung transplant list in 1995. He spent 17 months waiting for his opportunity, a wait that was increasingly difficult as his time in the hospital began to dwarf his time at home.
An Atypical Patient
On Aug. 2, 1996, Ferguson got the call that matching lungs were available. After a scramble to get a flight to North Carolina on short notice, Ferguson walked off a plane that night at RDU with a cooler full of medicine – his ambulance drivers thought he was carrying his new lungs – and headed to UNC.
Dr. Egan and his surgical team began the roughly nine-hour procedure around 2 a.m. on Aug. 3. Three days later, Ferguson was doing quarter-mile walks on a treadmill and readying to move on from the ICU. After getting permission from Dr. Egan, Ferguson literally walked from his room in the ICU to the main floor at what was then known as Anderson West, the first transplant patient to do so. That would not be the last noteworthy milestone of his recovery. On Aug. 16, just 13 days after surgery, Ferguson ended what was at the time the shortest hospital stay ever for a double lung transplant patient.
Ferguson remained in Chapel Hill for the next few months to build up his strength through physical therapy before returning home in November. A small infection behind his heart required a brief return that winter, but otherwise his post-transplant complications were limited. Life became less about surviving and more about thriving.
Keeping The Door Open
Dr. Egan came to UNC from the University of Toronto, where he trained with the first surgeon to perform a lung transplant. Dr. Egan chose Carolina over other opportunities because he saw great interest in both cystic fibrosis and lung transplantation, and his program at UNC quickly established a reputation for being a leader in the field. And as patient at the NIH under Dr. Milica Chernick, who was a strong advocate for lung transplantation, Ian was led back to Chapel Hill and to Dr. Egan’s program.
The program also attracted Ian’s father Jim.
Jim Ferguson began taking a great interest in Dr. Egan’s work following Ian’s transplant, and soon the elder Ferguson became an important benefactor for the program. After an operating microscope that Dr. Egan had obtained from another unit at UNC became unusable, Jim’s support allowed the program to purchase new equipment to keep the work going. That support has been vital to Dr. Egan’s team over the years – “Support from people like Jim Ferguson has literally kept the door open to our laboratory to allow us to continue our research,” Dr. Egan says.
Jim’s philanthropy has always been done with little attention or fanfare, so much so that Ian was initially unaware of his father’s giving. Upon finally learning of his father’s contribution to Dr. Egan and his work, Ian and his wife began their own financial support of a program that has given them so much.
An Eye To The Future
In the same way that he was an exceptional patient in the weeks following transplant surgery, Ian Ferguson has become an exceptional transplant survivor. Now in his 24th year following surgery, his focus is on continuing to enjoy time with his family and his career as the executive chef at the American Medical Association in Washington, D.C. And, importantly, to draw attention to Dr. Egan and his work so that more lives can be changed as his has been.
Ian returns to Chapel Hill each August around the anniversary of his transplant and always makes a point to visit Dr. Egan for a look at his facilities or just to enjoy lunch with a friend. The topic of conversation is never “glory days”, as Ian puts it, but rather looking forward to the future of Dr. Egan’s research into improving the lives of patients with cystic fibrosis and others who would benefit from the work being done at UNC.
For Dr. Egan, it’s also an annual reminder of the impact his program’s work has on its patients.
“I always enjoy seeing patients come back to our clinic years later, to see how they are enjoying life,” Dr. Egan says. “So many of these patients take advantage of their new health in ways they couldn’t before. It’s wonderful that Ian is looking back at almost 24 years with an enjoyable quality of life.”
For Ian, the decision to support Dr. Egan and his team was an easy one on a personal level. But it also felt like an obvious one on a human level.
“He’s spent his entire life as a surgeon making life better – even if just for a short time – for countless cystic fibrosis and COPD patients,” Ian says of Dr. Egan. “And he’s continuing to devote his life to making outcomes for those patients better. If that kind of devotion doesn’t deserve support, what kind does?”
For more information on how to support Dr. Egan’s work in the UNC Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, please contact Mary Margaret Carroll, Senior Executive Director of Development at UNC Health Foundation, at 919-843-8443 or firstname.lastname@example.org.