Despite tremendous hurdles, a young man is thankful for “the ultimate gift of life”

Credit: Bowman Family.

Brett Bowman isn’t your average 27-year-old.

In fact, most people faced with the kind of challenges he’s had to navigate in his life might feel defeated.

But not him.

After the loss of his brother, a double lung transplant and a rare complication that left him blind, he’s eager to share his story of triumph, perseverance and hope.

Bowman spent much of his young life in and out of University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital undergoing treatment for cystic fibrosis, a condition he and his younger brother, Blake, were diagnosed with shortly after their births.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition that causes a thick buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs.

In the lungs, the mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria, which often leads to infections, lung damage and respiratory failure, explains U-M Health Transplant Centerpulmonologist Dennis Lyu, M.D., whose team evaluates patients to determine their eligibility for lung transplant.

With the help of his doctors and steadfast support from his family, Bowman’s symptoms — including wheezing, lung infections and difficulty breathing — were managed as he grew up.

He participated in high school sports, but also knew his limits and was careful not to push himself too far.

Facing challenges head-on

“When I started high school, things were OK. I did have to go to the hospital every four months or so for my regular IV antibiotics and bronchoscopies to remove the mucus in my lungs,” said Bowman.

“But in my senior year, things started going downhill. Even with IV antibiotics, I wasn’t getting better.”

That was also the year Bowman lost his younger brother to the disease.

I was getting a second chance at life and so whatever I had to do, I was 100% committed.”

— Brett Bowman

During the next five years, Bowman’s condition further deteriorated.

“I felt terrible. I couldn’t breathe. I was 23 at the time and I was thinking, there’s so much more that I want to do and see. That’s when we started thinking a transplant might be a good option. I felt like getting a lung transplant would allow me to do all the things I wanted to do.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and there was no guarantee. But I just I knew this was something I really wanted. And whatever I had to do, I was going to push myself to do it.”

Bowman says support from his family and friends was critical.

“When I was really sick, they rallied around me and that’s what carried me. I also had amazing doctors and I can’t say enough good things about them.”

With his lung function at 30% and antibiotics being pumped into his body 24/7, Bowman, his parents and his transplant team decided to start the process of finding a suitable donor for a bilateral lung transplant.

Facing the day

The day came nearly five years ago for the extremely ill 23-year-old.

“The patient was on the verge of being put on a ventilator when a suitable donor became available,” said Lyu.

“When it came time. I was scared, but I knew this was my way forward,” Bowman said.

“I was getting a second chance at life and so whatever I had to do, I was 100% committed.”

Bowman’s transplant team, confident they had a strong donor, began the 10-hour surgery, which went according to plan.

During a lung transplant operation, incisions are made in the patient’s chest.

One lung is removed and replaced with a donor lung, which involves attaching airways and blood vessels to the donor lung.

The procedure is then repeated for the second lung.

While the transplant was a success, an “extraordinarily rare infection after lung transplant” attacked Bowman’s eyes, resulting in blindness for the young man, said U-M pulmonologist Rommel Sagana, M.D.

Known as panophthalmitis, the bacteria that caused the condition, which originated in Bowman’s original lungs, “began a few weeks following surgery, causing pain around his eyes, and then worsening vision.”

But through it all, “he was always grateful that he was able to breathe well.”

“I can live an amazing life”

Despite the crushing blow of losing his sight, Bowman’s positive attitude took precedence once again.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you get up every day and just do life?’” Bowman’s answer is clear: “You can live with no sight, but you can’t live without lungs. It’s not perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than not being here.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself the last few years. I can still live an amazing life without my eyesight. Things are going to be a little bit tougher, but I still travel.

I still go out with my buddies. I still have a girlfriend. You can do all the normal things that everyone else can do, but maybe just a little bit differently. “

Beyond the darkness

“Sometimes, when you feel like you’re in this dark tunnel — because that’s what it felt like right after I lost my sight — you just have to keep moving.”

And moving he does, visiting the gym four times a week and running races with his cousin and another lung transplant patient he met while recovering at U-M Health.

“Ever since we met, we’ve been the greatest friends. We call each other lung brothers,” Bowman said.

According to Sagana, “Brett’s lungs have worked beautifully throughout the last five years.”

Bowman’s parents have remained by his side, amazed at his strength and positive outlook. His mother and former running partner, Kim, recalls the time he suggested she might be slowing him down during races, telling her: “I love you mom, but you can’t keep up with me. Your legs are too short.”

Kim takes it all in stride.

“I would have never imagined that this is what our life would look like. Of course, there’s missing Blake and so many other hurdles Brett has gotten through. But he has all these great achievements, like finishing college and looking toward the future. It’s amazing.”

Meeting his donor family

Six months after his transplant, Bowman’s donor family reached out to meet him.

Their first meeting was a FaceTime call due to COVID restrictions, but they’ve since met in person.

Bowman says his donor was a father and husband — and a really good person.

“I’m super close to the family and talk with them daily. They’re just amazing people and I’m so thankful to them.”

Today, Bowman is nearly finished with classes at Dorsey College and will graduate with a degree in orthopaedic massage therapy.

He’s grateful for his strong support system, including his doctors, biological family, friends, leader dog, Legacy, and especially his donor family.

The ultimate gift

“Brett tells me, ‘God blessed me with the opportunity to have a new life. Somebody gave me the ultimate gift with their own life. And if I hadn’t gotten a lung transplant, we wouldn’t even be talking about my eyes.’”

Written by Jane Racey Gleeson.

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