Where There's Hope, There's Life

Many of us face health challenges, perhaps even life-altering events. A positive attitude combined with the skills and confidence to deal effectively with the hurdles, obstacles, and challenge we find thrown into our paths can make a big difference in our health status and outcome.

Living Well with Chronic Conditions and Living Well with Diabetes are evidence-based programs developed by Stanford University, designed to give people with chronic conditions the skills and self-confidence to better manage their health. As a master trainer and lay leader for the Living Well programs, I've had the opportunity and privilege to meet wonderful people, including those whose organizations sponsor the workshops, other master trainers and lay leaders, and amazing workshop participants. I have been inspired by their stories and their journeys.

April is National Donate Life Month, so it seems fitting to write about Shawn Smith, seen in the photo above, a master trainer and lay leader for Group Health's Living Well programs. Shawn inspires others by his positive attitude and the story of his journey, which includes the gift of life via a double lung transplant.

Shawn began to experience breathing problems in 1985, when he was in middle school. At age 14, he ended up in intensive care at Children's Hospital in Seattle and suffered a collapsed lung seven times. Additionally, he suffered a stroke that left him temporarily blind and paralyzed on his left side.

What was the cause of all his breathing problems?  Eventually Shawn received his diagnosis: Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which is a frequently fatal disease.

Shawn survived—some would say miraculously—and he started to live as normal life a life as possible. He became employed, got married, and also became a father; however, he still had health issues.

Shawn was overweight and, due to his lung problems, became fatigued easily. In late 2000, he was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease and pulmonary fibrosis. He required supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day and he was informed that he could no longer work. The doctors told him that, without a lung transplant, he would have no more than five years to live. This new information left him feeling dispirited and depressed.

But Shawn's inner spirit and will to live propelled him to take action. He decided to prepare for a double lung transplant. He focused on losing weight and decided to make his health a full time job and priority.

Shawn enrolled in a Living Well with Chronic Conditions workshop. After completing the workshop as a participant, Shawn decided to become a workshop leader and eventually became a Living Well master trainer. His inspirational story and his enthusiasm for embracing life and fighting for his own health help workshop participants believe in the possibility of health and wellness for themselves.

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When Shawn's condition stabilized in 2004, he was dropped from the transplant preparation program. During this time, he also faced additional challenges, including a divorce; however, he continued leading Living Well workshops and building upon his self-management skills.

Kathryn Ramos, another leader and Living Well master trainer who coordinates and trains leaders for Group Health and its community partners, has had the privilege of working with Shawn on many occasions. They have led workshops, conducted leader trainings, and travelled to Stanford University together to train in the diabetes self-management program.

Kathryn says that Shawn is a never-ending source of positive energy. She has never seen him say "I can't" or "I won't." Kathryn says that Shawn works to find a solution to every challenge he faces, big and small.

I've seen Kathryn and Shawn lead together. This dynamic duo has a chemistry that brightens up the room.

In 2012, doctors told Shawn that his scarred lungs would continue to get worse and eventually he would experience respiratory failure. With this new information, Shawn began to prepare again for a possible double-lung transplant. In November 2014, he was placed on the waiting list for lung transplants at the UW Medical Center in Seattle.

Shawn continues to exercise at least three days each week, and continues to lead Living Well workshops and train new leaders for the program. He knows how important it is for him to stay active and to keep his body in the best possible shape. Though the wait time is uncertain, Shawn remains optimistic and hopeful.

For information on Living Well classes, visit www.livingwell.doh.wa.gov.

Contributor Mary Pat O'Leary, RN, is a planner at Aging and Disability Services and a Living Well with Chronic Conditions master trainer.