Survivor uses second chance to encourage others

July 23, 2011 

Recovering after a February double lung transplant operation necessitated by the cystic fibrosis he was born with, 20-year-old Brennen Reeves does chest presses while working out on Thursday at Odyssey Health Club on Hilton Head Island.

JAY KARR/ THE ISLAND PACKET

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Brennen Reeves is a 20-year-old college kid who works out at the gym, has two summer jobs and is rehearsing for a production of short plays called "A Celebration of the Short Attention Span."

But for most of his life, Brennen's attention was focused on something we take for granted -- breathing.

At eight weeks, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive disease in his lungs and pancreas that nearly choked the life out of him before he got a double-lung transplant Feb. 21.

"Before my transplant, I had to think about every breath I took," he said. "Now it comes naturally. That makes such a difference."

He wants to use his experience to make a difference in the lives of others -- to tell people a positive can come out of every negative, even when genetics deals you the hand of cystic fibrosis. He wants people to be organ donors and to know that life on earth has a higher purpose.

His new lungs from someone he doesn't know came with no guarantee. He said he doesn't dwell on the numbers, but something like 90 percent of recipients live a year and 50 percent live five years.

"I've been given a second chance," he said. "I live every day like it's my last."

'A FIGHTER'

Brennen is a born Hilton Head Islander. His father, Mike Reeves, has been with Espy Lumber Co. for 29 years. He's vice president and general manager of the firm that opened before there was a bridge to the island. His mother, Ann Reeves, did accounting work until she turned her attention to Brennen. They've spent a lot of time together in hospitals, and her being away has been one way Brennen's 22-year-old brother, Michael, has sacrificed throughout his life to help his little brother. Mike Reeves said his wife deserves "mother of the decade."

The family has known for many years that a double-lung transplant would be required, but doctors said he should keep his diseased lungs as long as possible.

Brennen played baseball until 10th grade. He made the island American Legion team. "I was the bunt king," he said. Then he switched his energy to theater, where Hilton Head Island High School drama teacher Michael Pilgreen cast him as the lead in "Footloose."

At home, Brennen had to prime himself with oxygen, breathing treatments and as many as 30 pills a day. He coughed around the clock. His father said, "It was a blood-curdling cough, like it was coming from the bottom of his feet. I would tap on him, like you tap the side of a ketchup bottle, to get the mucous to move down to where he could cough it out."

Brennen graduated in 2009 and stayed home for his freshman year at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Last year, he felt up to going to the College of Charleston, to major in theater. He was in two plays. But when he got home at Christmas, he was a wreck.

At Duke University Hospital, a doctor said, "This is your year of sudden death."

Brennen was put on a list to receive a transplant. The family moved to Duke on Feb. 1. By then Brennen needed two liters of oxygen a day. Two weeks later, it was up to 15 liters.

"I wasn't ready to give up," he said. "I've always been a fighter from day one. I've always wanted to have my own family and finish school and make my parents happy and things like that. So, yeah, it was always in the back of my head, life and death, but I just knew there were only two roads I could take. There wasn't an option other than death at the time."

A QUIET HOUSE

Mike Reeves held his son's hand as he was rolled to an icy operating room.

"By the time we got to the end of the hall, I was a mess," Brennen said. "He kissed me and hugged me and he told me he loves me. He told me he's proud of me."

The next morning, Brennen had to be opened up again for emergency surgery to remove a blood clot.

He was in intensive care for more than a month.

He came home May 10.

He plans to go back to the College of Charleston Aug. 15, after "A Celebration of the Short Attention Span" runs Aug. 11-13 at the S.C. Repertory Co. theater.

His family is optimistic. Tests look good. He's switched from one set of medicine to another -- this time drugs to keep his body from rejecting his new lungs. But the house is quiet. The coughing is gone.

Brennen is working days at Fat Baby's Pizza and Subs and nights at the Market Street Cafè.

On his birthday July 16, about 20 friends came over for spaghetti. Brennen has always had a big support group. He said he wouldn't trade anything in his life, not even the suffering.

'NOT ABOUT ME'

But Brennen said this is not a story about him.

He said it's a story about his family, which has given its all for him.

It's about St. Luke's Church, and pastor Greg Kronz, who has talked a lot with Brennen, including an hour prior to the transplant.

It's about all the people who made 28,589 visits to his CaringBridge.org Web page while he was at Duke. His mother's sister wrote daily -- sometimes hourly -- updates for supporters back home. They responded with messages of encouragement that sustained Brennen late at night, alone, in ICU.

It's about the people who put a "Welcome Home, Brennen" banner over Point Comfort Road.

It's about people who donate their organs, so that others may live.

But Brennen said it's not really about cystic fibrosis or the miracle of a double-lung transplant.

"It's about just a regular Joe who's having a tough day at work or who's having a tough time in life," Brennen said. "It's about giving up, and things like that. It's about light at the end of the tunnel. If you have faith and believe in yourself, you can do anything you want."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Relarted content:

Hilton Head student goes 'Footloose' despite fatal disease

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