Millcreek man battles cystic fibrosis with new lungs

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A double-lung transplant doesn’t cure the genetic disease but it should extend Nicholas Katsadas’ life.

Nicholas Katsadas finally had a chance to hear his new lungs.

His mother, Deanna, handed him a stethoscope Nov. 28, a month after the 21-year-old Millcreek Township man underwent a double-lung transplant at UPMC Presbyterian. He put the device against his chest and listened.

“It was a little emotional,” Katsadas said. “I was used to hearing a crackle with a lot of congestion when I breathed. It was all clear, just the whoosh of air moving. It was beautiful.”

Katsadas, an Edinboro University of Pennsylvania student, received the new lungs as a life-saving treatment for cystic fibrosis. The genetic disease fills a person’s lungs with thick, sticky mucus that leads to serious lung infections.

There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, though new treatments have extended the median lifespan of people with the disease to their late 30s, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“A lung transplant doesn’t cure the disease because (the disease) affects other organs like the pancreas and liver, but Nick’s new lungs will not develop cystic fibrosis,” said Pablo Sanchez, M.D., a UPMC cardiothoracic surgeon who performed Katsadas’ transplant.

Katsadas has suffered from the disease since birth. He spent 9½ months in the neonatal intensive care unit as an infant and required a ventilator to breathe for the first few years of his life.

He grew stronger, however, and was able to leave his house wearing a backpack that is attached to a feeding tube in his stomach, Deanna Katsadas said. The tube is still how Katsadas receives nourishment.

“Nick was able to do the things kids normally do, like go to school and play,” Deanna Katsadas said.

Katsadas enrolled at Edinboro and felt well enough to play basketball with friends and take part in other strenuous activities. But in March 2017 he caught the flu.

Influenza can be a life-threatening illness for people with cystic fibrosis because it can permanently decrease their ability to breathe, according to the foundation.

“When Nick got the flu, he ended up spending 11 weeks in the hospital,” Deanna Katsadas said. “His lung function declined so much he went from playing basketball with friends to not even being able to shoot a basketball without having to catch his breath.”

Katsadas’ pulmonologist said it was time to discuss getting a lung transplant.

“They said that if I got sick again it would be really hard for me to recover,” Katsadas said.

A lung transplant doesn’t cure cystic fibrosis but it has become an increasingly common treatment for people with the disease.

Katsadas was placed on the transplant list and waited for a compatible donor. One was found on Oct. 28.

“It was 5 a.m. when my phone went off and the call was from the 412 area code,” Katsadas said. “I immediately knew it was the call before I answered it because of the area code. The lady said they had lungs that were a match and that I needed to get down to Pittsburgh.”

Surgery was scheduled for that afternoon. Katsadas waited in the preoperative area, watching the Steelers-Browns game on a TV that UPMC Presbyterian staff had wheeled to his patient bed.

The surgery lasted about 8 hours. When Katsadas awoke from the anesthesia, his first question wasn’t about his new lungs.

“He kept asking if the Steelers won,” Deanna Katsadas said with a laugh.

Nurses told him the Steelers had won, 33-18.

Katsadas recovered quickly from the surgery. He spent less than a week in the intensive care unit and another week at Presbyterian before he was moved next door to UPMC Montefiore’s rehabilitation unit.

“Nick is doing really well,” Sanchez said. “He’s young and strong, and he continues to recover.”

Katsadas is expected to transfer Wednesday to a UPMC Family House, where he will remain for up to several more weeks, Sanchez said. Transplant patients who live two hours or more from Pittsburgh typically spend three months near the hospital because of the frequent follow-up tests and the possibility of complications.

As his health improves, Katsadas is able to do more activities. He recently had a family friend cut his hair and is working out more in therapy sessions.

“My goal is to stay home and recover through the winter, then work out a lot in the summer,” Katsadas aid. “I’ll be playing basketball, football, going on walks, as long as my lungs are strong.”

Cystic fibrosis patients usually do better with transplanted lungs than patients who need them for other reasons, Sanchez said. On average, they last about eight years in a patient with cystic fibrosis.

“Nick will only be 29 or so by then, so the odds are that if he needs another transplant, it could be a possibility,” Sanchez said.

Katsadas’ plans don’t involve another transplant. His goal is to return to school at Edinboro, graduate with a degree in journalism and eventually get hired as a writer for the TV show “General Hospital.”

He visited the set about 11 years ago on a Make-A-Wish trip and has kept in contact with some of the soap opera’s actors and staff. They even allowed him to create a recurring character for the show.

“This transplant has given me a second chance to do what I want to do,” Katsadas said. “I never use my disease as an excuse to not reach my potential.”

David Bruce can be reached at 870-1736 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNbruce.