A MAN OF TRUE GRIT
Following a double lung transplant, Jerry Nettles is back to doing what he loves most: creating with his hands
FOR 24 YEARS, JERRY NETTLES, 54, OF WILLISTON, WORKED AT MADDOX, pouring 3,000-degree metal into massive, bucket-shaped molds. Amid a constant billowing of sandy smoke, he tuned out the machinery’s deafening roar and focused on the flow of the flammable liquid.
Sometimes, the metal splattered onto the floor, and team members — their ears plugged, eyes goggled and bodies covered in flame-resistant fabrics — heaved sand to extinguish the flames already licking at their elbows. Come evening, Maddox’s employees began the trek home, their faces, necks and hands covered in thick white dust. It’s a place and a job Nettles still misses.
What Nettles didn’t learn until after decades of employment at Maddox was that the chemicals he was exposed to there were eating away at his lungs, eventually calcifying them solid, he says. With time, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema and learned he needed a double lung transplant.
For years, Nettles chalked up his breathing troubles to labor-induced fatigue, choosing to continue supporting his family as long as he could stand up. His health journey proved long and challenging, but after a lung transplant performed in 2017 at UF Health Shands Hospital, Nettles has resumed his favorite activity: working with his hands.
NETTLES FIRST NOTICED BREATHING TROUBLE IN 2006, when he took his daughter to the local school track. He usually kept up with her, but this time he couldn’t make it once around the track. A month later, he fell on one knee at work, unable to inhale. He saw a doctor in Gainesville in 2010, who diagnosed him with COPD and emphysema.
Nettles was referred to the UF Health lung transplant list, but the process required pausing his work to be ready at all times for that call signaling his new lungs were ready. So, he decided to keep working, even when the morning walk from his car became an ordeal.
“I’d be worn out, bona fide tired, before I made it to the building,” Nettles says. “I did that for another year or two. I like to work, and I like to take care of my family.”
But one day, the difficulty breathing became too much for him.
“It was 4 a.m., and I turned to my wife and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it,’” he says.
AN AMBULANCE RUSHED NETTLES TO UF HEALTH SHANDS HOSPITAL, where he stayed for two days.
“The doctor told me, ‘You’re lucky to be alive,’” he says. “He said if I didn’t get new lungs, I’d die in four years. I was 48. I wasn’t scared of dying, but I wanted to live.”
Nettles calls being on the transplant list “a long process of holding on.” In August 2016, UF Health called Nettles with news of new lungs, but his phone didn’t receive the call. Instead of reacting with anger or sadness, Nettles took it in stride.
“I thought, maybe somebody needed those lungs more than me, or those lungs might not have worked for me,” he says.
On March 23, 2017, Nettles’ phone rang at 11:40 p.m., just as he and his wife, Nina, were on their way to bed. “Can you arrive by 12:30 a.m.?” asked the voice on the other end of the phone. Nettles grabbed the suitcase that had been waiting in the corner for months.
“Driving over there, I wasn’t nervous. I was ready,” Nettles says.
He recalls joking with the nurses as they readied him for the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, or ECMO, which removes a patient’s blood, adds oxygen, removes carbon dioxide, warms the blood and returns it into the veins. The machine gives a patient’s lungs or heart the boost needed during the wait for a transplant.
The next thing Nettles remembers is waking up in the pulmonary intensive care unit a few days later and marveling at the sounds of cars whooshing along Archer Road, a sensory input signaling he was alive.
“At UF Health Shands Hospital, from the bottom to the top tier, everyone treated me like gold. They were my family, and that was my home,” he says of his 17-day stay.
Nina Nettles remained by her husband’s side for each of those days. She was so moved by the teamwork exhibited throughout his care that she set her sights on joining the team at UF Health Shands Hospital, where she now works as a personal care assistant.
“Jerry never worries about anything,” she says. “He has a strong heart. I think that positive attitude helps with healing.”
ON APRIL 10, 2017, NETTLES RETURNED HOME. The 35-minute car ride from the hospital provided time for reflection.
“I looked at cows and trees; I caught all the scenery,” he says. “My ride to the hospital was in the dark, and it could’ve been my last car ride. I wouldn’t have been able to see all this ever again.”
During those first few days back at home, he would gaze out of the window, looking longingly at his tools and waiting patiently for his strength to return. Now, nearly two years after his transplant, he’s replacing the entire exterior of his home with new lumber and building two decks and a shed on his property.
“Even as a kid, I wanted to create things with my hands,” Nettles says. “I believe in my hands, and I believe in my mind. There’s nothing that can’t be created.”
Problem-solving care at UF Health
Andres Pelaez, MD, medical director of the UF Health Lung Transplant Program and an associate professor of medicine in the UF College of Medicine, performed Nettles’ lung transplant. He said the new specialized ICU gives lung transplant patients advantages they wouldn’t have elsewhere. Respiratory therapists, nurses, surgeons and pulmonary physicians are all close at hand. Procedures, recovery and follow-up visits all occur in the same location.
“Bringing all these disciplines together allows patients to have early mobilization after a procedure and aggressive physical therapy while they are dealing with their recovery,” Pelaez said.
UF Health ranks first in the state and 13th in the nation in lung transplant volume. Since 2014, UF Health first-year patient survival has increased from 74 to 92 percent. Of 12 lung programs in the 10 southeastern states, UF Health surgeons have performed the second-most transplants with the second-lowest mortality rate among adults awaiting transplant between July 2015 and June 2017.
Tiago Machuca, MD, PhD, a thoracic surgeon, lung specialist and assistant professor of surgery in the UF College of Medicine, said UF Health provides innovative care to its lung transplant patients, including the resizing of donor lungs to create a perfect fit and the use of the XVIVO Lung Perfusion System, which allows donor lungs to be kept alive and potentially improved to become eligible for transplant.
“I’m extremely proud of where we are today,” Machuca said. “We have become a high-volume program with excellent outcomes. It’s due to a lot of hard work by a lot of people. Putting all our patients together is a way to optimize resources so that a strong team of people can provide the very best lung care.”