“It was a struggle to get through every day. Every minute was difficult,” Chris said.
After seven bouts of pneumonia in a two-year period, Chris was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. Tiny collections of inflammatory cells were growing in Chris’ lungs and causing scar tissue. His lung function dropped to 36%, and he was connected to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Chris was unable to walk and talk at the same time, and he couldn’t say a whole sentence without taking breaths between each word. His skin was extremely pale, almost ghostly. Normal everyday activities were far from easy.
“When I did laundry, I had to carry it up two flights of stairs. I had to put the laundry basket down on every single step. I couldn’t carry it all the way up because I couldn’t breathe and move at the same time, even on oxygen, and I had to try to conserve my energy,” Chris said.
Chris had to quit his job as a department manager at Wal-Mart because his energy was nonexistent and “I was literally killing myself just by going to work,” he said. He became too weak to sing at church, so he would mouth the words instead. He couldn’t laugh without experiencing a coughing fit, and yawning became impossible.
“I would start yawning, but I had very little space in my lungs and they wouldn’t expand, so the yawn would just stop,” Chris said.
Because he was too sick to work, Chris took on his most important role – a stay-at-home dad to his three daughters, Emily, Caitlin and Lauren. Though he loved spending more time with them, he was frustrated that he couldn’t be as active as he wanted to be. They would go on bike rides, but Chris would ride so slow that his daughters had to wait for him to catch up at every stop sign on every block.
“I couldn’t throw the softball back and forth with Emily for more than five minutes, and I couldn’t play soccer with Cait and Lauren for more than five minutes. When I reached that five-minute mark, I had to go lay down and take a few hour nap just to recuperate after that little bit of activity,” Chris said. “It was really hard on me and them.”
While the girls were at school, Chris kept himself busy by tracing his family history. One winter night, he fell asleep watching the History Channel and was awoken around midnight to the sound of the phone ringing.
That phone call changed Chris’ life forever. After three and a half years on the waiting list, Chris was going to receive a double lung transplant.
Chris’ sister, Kim, picked up Emily, Caitlin and Lauren, and Chris grabbed the suitcase that had been sitting by his front door for six months, and he headed to the Cleveland Clinic.
“I had a lot of emotions – anxiety, extreme happiness, elation, and I was scared out of my mind,” Chris said.
On February 16, 2009, after 18 hours of surgery, Chris took his first breath with his new lungs.
“I took a deep breath, and I could feel my new lungs expand. It was the most incredible feeling,” Chris said. “The sensation was like nothing else. I really can’t put it into words.”
Chris’ first deep yawn “felt so good,” and he was able to laugh without coughing and sing loudly without being short of breath.
Within five days of his transplant, Chris was speed walking around the eighth floor of the Cleveland Clinic. He would bet cough drops with his neighbor, who received a single lung transplant the same day as Chris, that he could outrace him.
That friendly yet competitive nature sparked Chris’ interested in the Donate Life Transplant Games of America, an Olympic-style competition for transplant recipients. Chris was determined to participate after he recovered from his transplant.
“As a little kid, I had always watched the Olympics and wished I could do that, so the Transplant Games gave me a goal to reach and work for because competing in the Games was the next best thing to being an Olympic athlete,” Chris said.
And he achieved that goal. Chris competed in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 Transplant Games. In 2010, Chris didn’t earn any medals, but he said he was just happy to be there to take in the experience. In 2012, Chris brought home a silver medal in badminton. In 2014, he earned a bronze medal in badminton and a bronze medal in darts. Having his best Transplant Games in 2014 was fitting for Chris since they were held in Houston, Texas.
“All I know about my donor is that they were from Texas, so being there was real. Part of me was back home,” Chris said.
Chris, 45, continues to be active at home, too. Emily, now 16, and 12-year-old twins Caitlin and Lauren get to enjoy time with their healthy father. He assistant coached Caitlin and Lauren’s softball team, and he beamed with pride when he watched Emily in marching band. He looks forward to seeing them graduate, meeting their boyfriends and walking them down the aisle.
He is also raising his son, Noah, who was born June 11, 2014.
“My donor has given me the chance to be a father again,” Chris said. “To be able to hold my son makes me so overwhelmed with joy.”
With the new addition to the May family, Chris has set his sights on earning at least two more Transplant Games medals to bring his total to five – one for each of his children, and one for his donor family.
Chris is extremely grateful for his second chance at life.
“I have had five and a half years so far of a blessed life,” Chris said. “Every day has been a miracle.”