Paul Aragon is breathing a lot easier these days. That he is breathing at all is somewhat of a miracle after a last-minute double lung transplant last month that saved his life.
Aragon, a 45-year-old Los Lunas native, was on life support in January from a disease diagnosed just a few weeks earlier — pulmonary fibrosis — a lung disease with no cure and a certain death sentence.
“It was a complete surprise when my doctor found it,” Aragon said by phone last week from his hospital bed in Phoenix.
He’d been having trouble breathing and went to his doctor in late fall to check it out.
“It was suddenly just there and we don’t know what caused it,” he said.
Pulmonary Fibrosis, or PF, is typically caused by contact with toxic material such as asbestos or toxic gas like sarin. While the source of Aragon’s PF is unknown, it’s likely he was exposed in the course of his career as a general contractor.
Whatever the source, he said, “The lung gets inflamed by something it doesn’t like and becomes infected.”
The air sacs in the lung — which capture the oxygen — become scarred and stiff, and no longer function.
“I was short of breath,” he said. “The scar tissue cut off the oxygen.”
Aragon, who’s single with no children, and his relatives were told to prepare for the worst.
By Jan. 17, he said, he was being given the maximum output of oxygen “and it still wasn’t working. I had to get a lung transplant or die. It was scary. I’m only 45. I’ve still got a lot of living to do.”
Aragon was transferred that day by medical flight from Albuquerque to St. Joseph Medical Center in Phoenix, where he was put on the high-priority transplant list.
“They don’t do lung transplants in New Mexico,” he said, “so I had to go to Colorado or Arizona. We decided on Phoenix because it was recommended and it’s one of the top five places in the country for lung transplants.”
Aragon had to wait 11 days for a donor and his chances of survival grew slimmer each day, but a donor was found at essentially the 11th hour and the dual transplant was successful.
The donor remains unidentified, even as to age or gender.
“The doctors won’t say right now,” he said. “We may find out later.”
But for now, less than a month after the transplant, a grateful Aragon says, “I feel great. I feel like a new man. My oxygen is running 93 percent, 95 percent, just perfect, and there’s no signs of rejection, although the doctors warn that’s always a possibility.”
That possibility will keep him in St. Joseph’s for at least another two months while his recovery will be monitored, and he said doctors refuse to discuss yet when he can return to work.
“We have to play it by ear, but I can’t wait to get back to work,” he said.
Although he has health insurance that covered the bulk of his medical costs, being out of work that long has had an impact on the self-employed Aragon’s personal finances and those of family members who’ve traveled back and forth to Phoenix to be with him.
But friends and family have jumped in to help. Spearheaded by his sister, Ruby Cordero, and her daughter, Dominique Cordero, there have been several fundraising efforts so far toward a minimum goal of $4,000, with a major fundraising celebration planned Saturday, March 2, at the Camino Real Winery & Taproom in Los Lunas.
Although he won’t be there to take part, Aragon said he is very thankful for the efforts of others to help him breathe easier financially as well as physically. A bank account has been established and donations for live auctions and a raffle at the party are being accepted. Contact Dominique Cordero at 916-9300, or Ruby Cordero at 307-2053.
“I want to thank everybody who has already donated,” he said. “It really means a lot to me. I hope everybody has a lot of fun at the party.”