Boyne City Man Receives Double Lung Transplant; Writes About Experience
Robert Wollenberg has loved biking with his wife, Jackie, since their retirement at Boyne Public Schools.
“We were biking in Young State Park by our house and Jackie was going up the hill as normal and I wasn’t doing well,” Robert said. “That was a pretty good indication that something was the matter.”
It was a near-drowning experience at Lake Charlevoix trying to get the top of a canopy that had blown into the lake that pushed Robert to get help.
“My whole body just froze. It absolutely everything stopped,” Robert said. “I had no air. None.”
His daughter, Zachera Wollenberg, encouraged him to get checked out at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she was living.
Doctors diagnosed him with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, or IPF, four and a half years ago.
“The progression that we were seeing was so fast sometimes,” Zachera said. “It seemed like he was able to do something a week ago and now it just wasn’t happening.”
After a month of tests, doctors determined that Robert was eligible to be put on the national donor registry for a double lung transplant.
“To be honest, we didn’t even know they did that,” Robert said. “The doctor said ‘Do you have time to meet with our transplant team?’ And I honestly went, The what? A transplant team? For what? For lungs?”
Doctors told him he could be on the registry for two to three months. But eight days later, he got a call to go into surgery.
“It was almost like, this is happening now, there was no waiting,” Robert said. “Maybe that was better. Maybe it made it easier, because it did all happen at once.”
His recovery was not easy, but there was one moment that stood out to Robert.
“At one point they [his doctors] said they were going to take the ventilator off and they put a tube down my throat and you’re going to breathe on your own with your own new lungs,” Robert said. “That was an incredibly emotional moment. I couldn’t speak but I kept looking at them like, Am I breathing? And they said ‘Yep, you are.”
During his recovery, Robert’s therapist asked if he had thought about writing down his experiences, being a former English teacher.
Robert started writing about his experience about a year later.
“I wanted to write a book from a patient’s perspective and also from the humorous perspective,” Robert said. “It’s not a story about a surgery. I absolutely didn’t want to write about the dark side. There are a lot of dark moments, but I had to have humor or I wasn’t going to do it.”
He also wanted an outlet to give thanks to organ donors.
“That’s why I’m here,” Robert said. “If it hadn’t been for an organ donor, I wouldn’t be living. There’s not a day that doesn’t go by when I look down at my chest and it’s moving up and down and I think that’s someone else’s set of lungs, and that’s…that’s pretty hard to wrap your head around.”
You can find and purchase Robert’s book here. A portion of the proceeds goes toward the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation.