Breathing Easy

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

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Last summer, as I puffed my way over Muir Pass (11,955 feet) in California’s High Sierra, I noticed a hiker toting a homemade pack. My casual inquiry lead to a conversation with W. Dennis Coffey, during which I learned that he made his own gear so it would be as light as possible, that he’d always dreamed of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and that, remarkably, he was tackling the tough mountain trail using other people’s lungs. Coffey hung in my memory long after the hike, so I contacted him a few months later. Here’s the gist of our conversation.

BP: Why did you need a double lung transplant?

WDC: I smoked up my first set of lungs. I was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988, a month prior to leaving for California to hike the PCT. I ignored it. After a 2-month, 750-mile trek, I returned home to discover that I had a very serious problem. Yet I continued to smoke and deny that my lungs were failing. In 1994, I experienced respiratory failure in the emergency room of a local hospital. I was removed from a ventilator 18 days later at 92 pounds, surviving on oxygen, unable to walk, and scared as I’d never been scared before. I somehow got past the shame and admitted first to myself, then later to others, that I had smoked up my lungs and I was responsible.

BP: But you wanted to continue backpacking, which isn’t easy on the lungs. Why?

WDC:I returned to California and the PCT in 1993, after an 11-year absence from long-distance hiking. My first challenge was Mono Pass (12,000 feet). At the summit, I found breathing difficult: tunnel vision, blue starbursts going off in my eyes, and hyperventilation. The first week out, I averaged 2.5 miles a day, the next week I achieved 4, and the third week, I hit 5 for a couple days. On July 2, 1999, 3 years after my left lung transplant, I spent the day climbing Donhoe Pass (11,025 feet), at the southern boundary of Yosemite National Park. I remember fondly the feeling that I had broken the bonds of life-support systems that had restricted me so much for so long. I should add that the view north from there is spectacular.

BP: What were you doing when we met last summer?

WDC: My plan for the summer of 2000 was to pack in at Mosquito Flat, hike south on the PCT to Mt. Whitney, and attempt to do Whitney in a day. When we met, I was hoping to recover from seriously abused rib muscles. On the previous 2 days, I had stomped through the mountains at 6.5 miles each day, and that turned out to be entirely too much. My respiratory rate hit 54 to 58 (breaths per minute). That’s almost one inhale and exhale cycle per second. With me, the rib muscles go first, followed by the diaphragm muscles 2 to 3 days later.

The next 2 days were slow and painful. I tried to hike, but my shallow breathing wasn’t adequate to get me up the trail without stopping every 20 to 30 feet to breathe and replenish desperately needed oxygen. A passing hiker told me the California Conservation Corps was encamped nearby. Their supervisor had a radio and arranged for a timely rescue. I ended up on horseback the next morning, riding out to Rainbow pack station.

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.