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May 2001

Breathing Easy

A double lung transplant slows, but doesn't stop, Pacific Crest Trail hiker Dennis Coffey.

BP: How did you know you could push yourself so hard?

WDC: I think now, since I’ve spent two summers in the Sierra, my doctors are more comfortable when I leave on my adventures. Nonetheless, I affectionately refer to my wonderful medical support at the University of Washington as my collective surrogate mother.

I live by the words of my surgeon, Douglas Wood, M.D.: “Strenuous exercise never hurt anyone.” When I received my second lung transplant, I realized that I had the horsepower to maybe get back to the mountains. I had no idea of what was to come. Progress was dreadfully slow and painful. Supplemental oxygen let me hike at a pace of 1 mile per hour, for 10 minutes at a time. That’s a humble start for a long-distance hiker. My first solo hike, from Chinook Pass to Snoqualmie Pass on the PCT, was agonizing, and I came down with altitude sickness. It turned out that I simply wasn’t breathing enough at altitude. With no nerves connecting my lungs to the rest of me, I would have to think to breathe. On a regular basis, I run out of air and have to stop to breathe or just dump the pack and drop to the ground to take very conscious control of my breathing to avoid hyperventilation, which can lead to respiratory failure-and I’ve been there, and done that.

BP: How have you changed your backpacking style since the surgery?

WDC: My style has changed dramatically. There are benefits; I take many more breaks to breathe, and those moments give me the opportunity to see where I’ve been. That has enhanced my adventures considerably. I found a book by Ray Jardine, Mr. Lightweight Backpacking (The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook), and I build a lot of my gear from lightweight fabrics and analyze each item in my pack. The initial efforts reduced my pack weight by 50 percent, to 25 pounds. Three hundred miles and a year later, it was 18 pounds. This winter, I plan to make another pack, a new tent, and replace some raingear, all of which may reduce my pack weight by some 2.5 pounds. For me, reduced weight reduces fatigue, resulting in a longer hiking day and greater consistency day after day on a long-distance hike. All you have to do is keep getting one foot in front of the other, and if you do that enough, Mexico to Canada is a piece of cake.

BP: Any concluding remarks?

WDC: I encourage everyone to sign an organ donor card and tell their family about their wishes. What a fine gift to give in your own passing: your life to another. My second donor saved not only my life, but the lives of five other people. I am grateful to the families of my donors for their decision.

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