SOUTH CHATHAM — Maybe it was the years of breathing sawdust and fiberglass particles, or maybe it was a fluke of genetics. Or perhaps it was completely random. But 44-year-old Rick Merrill now has severe scarring on his lungs, and he’s waiting for the double lung transplant that will save his life.
A Chatham native and 1993 graduate of Chatham High School, Merrill is a big man with a firm handshake and kind eyes. With a wonderful wife and a three-year-old son, Merrill loves fishing, and he’s a meticulous woodworker and boatbuilder. Now tethered to an oxygen hose, Merrill is also tethered to the telephone; he has to be ready to rush to Boston at a moment’s notice, should a transplant opportunity arise.
“I’ve had symptoms for years,” he said, having paused first for several minutes to catch his breath. Last year, he was on an ice fishing trip and had just cut down a tree for firewood when he knew something was seriously wrong. “I couldn’t breathe,” he said. Another time, he had chest pain and shortness of breath.
“I thought I was having a heart attack,” he said. Merrill went to a cardiologist, who found nothing wrong with his heart. He was referred to a pulmonologist, “who chalked it up to me being overweight and out of shape.” Months later, he came down with a bad chest cold and couldn’t stop coughing. He went to a local medical center and was seen by a doctor.
“He said, ‘You’ve got pulmonary fibrosis,’” Merrill said. The guess was confirmed by the chief of pulmonology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who advised him to begin the process of seeking a transplant. Without treatment, most people with pulmonary fibrosis live only three to five years, and Merrill knows he’s had symptoms for some time. What followed were five to six months of testing, “just to get on the list.”
Merrill got on that list in September, and soon received notification that donor lungs were available. “I never expected it to happen that quickly,” he said. He rushed to Boston and spent seven hours in the hospital waiting room before the surgeons announced that they had rejected the lungs. “It’s not enough for the donor to be the right blood type,” Merrill said.
“It’s frustrating, because I just need the right size person,” he said. Lungs from a shorter person won’t be a good match. And when the surgeons examine the donor lungs, the have to be absolutely perfect. “They want the best possible outcome,” Merrill said.
According to statistics published by the federal Health Services and Resources Administration, 95 percent of adults in the U.S. say they support organ donation, but only 58 percent are actually signed up as donors. Because only a tiny percentage of donors die in a way that allows for organ donation, there is a long waiting list of would-be recipients.
The surgery itself is no simple matter. While Brigham and Women’s does more than 80 such transplants each year, “it’s no slam dunk,” Merrill said. But he’s ready for the call.
“It can happen any second,” he said. With all the other pieces now in place, waiting is about all they can do. “Except pray,” he said.
Merrill’s illness has taken a toll on the family. He has been unable to work, and will likely have a slow recovery after the surgery. His wife, Heather, has had strong support from her employer, her manager and her coworkers, but will need to go on unpaid leave to care for Rick after the transplant surgery. Friends have established an online fundraiser at www.supportful.com/RicksNewLungs, and his fellow members at St. Martin’s Masonic Lodge are hosting a breakfast fundraiser with the Chatham Band on Dec. 14. The “Pancakes and Pajamas” event starts at 8:30 a.m. at the lodge on Old Harbor Road, and includes breakfast and live band music. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children, with free admission for kids five and under.
“It will be a really fun family event,” said family friend Polly Goddard, who’s helping to organize it. Goddard helps out with many of the lodge’s fundraisers, a few of which Merrill himself volunteered for in the past. “It’s nice we can support one of our own,” she said.
Merrill is thankful for the outpouring of support.
“My wife is a rock,” he said. While the situation is an emotional one, “she doesn’t really let on,” he said. Merrill said he’s also thankful that his son, Levi, is too young to really notice that anything’s wrong with his father.
“I’ve got a great family and lots of great friends,” he said. “More than I thought.”