Every breath sweet for double winner at Transplant Games

Brian McCoy, of Huntington, holds the framed gold and silver medals he recently won at the U.S. Transplant Games, surrounded by the many friendship pins he collected in trades with other athletes at the games. McCoy won the gold medal in the men’s doubles bowling event and the silver in mixed doubles bowling.
Brian McCoy, of Huntington, holds the framed gold and silver medals he recently won at the U.S. Transplant Games, surrounded by the many friendship pins he collected in trades with other athletes at the games. McCoy won the gold medal in the men’s doubles bowling event and the silver in mixed doubles bowling. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published July 11, 2016.

At age 43, every breath Brian McCoy takes is sweet, especially after he brought home two medals — a gold and a silver — for his bowling prowess at the Transplant Games, held June 10 through 15 in Cleveland, OH.

The Huntington resident received a double lung transplant on March 2, 2014, at the University of Michigan, after a medication interaction caused him to develop interstitial lung disease.

“I had seizures for 22 years, and they (doctors) couldn’t get them under control at any point, so they were adding a fourth medication,” he explains. “When they added that fourth medication, it reacted with one of the others I was taking and caused an allergic reaction. Basically what it did is it caused pulmonary fibrosis, so it hardened my lungs.”

The resulting symptoms landed McCoy in the hospital several times before he was properly diagnosed. He had to use an oxygen tank 24/7, effectively cutting off things he enjoyed doing, such as bowling and golf. His lung function was only at 3 percent at the time of the transplant surgery, with his right lung half full of fluid and crystallizing. He spent two months in the hospital following the operation, which included having his blood rerouted to a bypass oxygenation machine to keep him alive until his new lungs arrived.

To add insult to injury, after his surgery McCoy’s suppressed immune system caused him to develop cancer — a squamous cell carcinoma — at the base of his tongue. Several lymph nodes were removed to combat the disease. He also lost his gall bladder. He still has metal wires holding things together after his chest was opened up and ribs sawn in two.

But despite a painful six-month recovery following the ordeal, McCoy was more than determined to get his life back to normal.

“He’s always been competitive; it’s always been a ‘no quit’ — ever,” says his wife, Heidi. “It’s almost to be expected, you know, just to say it’s in his nature. It had him down when he was on oxygen and had a hard time getting around without pulling tanks around and having to change tanks in the car, stuff like that. But he never quit.”

McCoy, who had been bowling for about eight years, had to give it up a year before the transplant because he was on oxygen. But he slowly began to get back to the sport, at first exercising by going through the motions.

His perseverance paid off when he attended the 2016 Transplant Games along with 800 athletes, all of whom have had an organ transplant of some kind. He was somewhat of a celebrity among the participants.

“When people would hear that (Brian) was a double lung transplant recipient, they were like ‘Wow,’” Heidi McCoy recalls. “‘Oh, I just had a kidney. That’s it.’ But no — everybody who has had a transplant is special.”

McCoy participated as a member of Team Michigan in three bowling events — singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles. He says his nerves at being in his first competition didn’t earn him a good score in the singles event. However, in men’s doubles he was partnered with a man from Grand Rapids, MI, and together they snagged the gold.

In mixed doubles his partner from Michigan was ill, so he was matched with a woman from Indiana. Together, the relative strangers won the silver medal. McCoy was so thrilled he forgot to write down his scores in the events.

“I was pretty excited. It was unexpected,” he says. “I didn’t bowl my greatest. My average went down about 20 pins since the transplant and I’m trying to recover that. So I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

During the games, McCoy met the co-captain of Team USA, who is planning to compete at the World Transplant Games coming up in July 2017 in Malaga, Spain. He was invited to join the team to bowl in Spain. That trip is now McCoy’s No. 1 goal.

He says the games have inspired him to make the most of the second chance he has been given.

“You see other people that have gone through different things, different transplants, but yet they all come together as one and in mutual respect,” he adds. “The lady that presented the medal to me, her son had been in an accident and he saved five lives the night he died.”

Former Cincinnati Bengals football great Ickey Woods also attended the games. McCoy says Woods’ son died from an asthma attack, but his organs saved eight lives and enhanced about 80 other lives, from corneal transplants to tissues such as ligaments, tendons and bone marrow. The sacrifices made are not lost on McCoy, who has become a vocal advocate in the community for organ donation.

“All my kids are organ donors. My wife is, and myself. All my friends have changed their status to donor,” he says. “They had a benefit for me after I came home from the hospital to help raise money for the out-of-pocket expenses, and we signed up over 50 new people to be donors just at the benefit.”

Heidi McCoy stresses that people who sign up to be donors should let their families know about their decision, because even though the “donor” notification is listed on a driver’s license, the next of kin is still the person who ultimately decides if their loved one’s organs will be donated.

“You have to have that conversation with your spouse, even if they aren’t sick, because you never know if they will be in a car accident or have something happen,” she says. “Brian is a visual of what organ donation can do.”

In the meantime, McCoy has been cancer-free for a year and he is cleared for doing nearly anything he wants, including getting back to golfing.

His plans include obtaining a job as a professional chauffer and enjoying his family. He also plans to return to the U.S. Transplant Games when they are held again in 2018. He will defend his bowling medal and getting a start on building up his strength to perhaps enter other sports, such as badminton, ping-pong or swimming.

“As many as I can do without having contradicting schedules,” he adds.