Chef and Ground Zero Hero Gets a Second Chance at Life After Double Lung Transplant

After the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, James Kelly, a chef and former contestant on the program Iron Chef, volunteered at Ground Zero, serving meals to first responders. This act of kindness was to have long-term consequences for his health.

“I went down and did what I could do,” James says. “The air was so heavy that even indoors that it was difficult to breathe. The thought never crossed my mind that I could possibly be putting myself in any kind of danger. I thought, ‘Nothing’s going to fall on me now?’”

Many years after 9/11, James started to experience breathing issues. “From 2016, I would first get a cold, and the cold would turn into pneumonia or flu, and that would lead to a lung infection. I landed up in hospital twice a year and by 2018 three or four times a year. The breaking point was in 2019 when I had a terrible lung infection and the pulmonologist told me ‘you have the lungs of an 85-year-old man who smokes six packs of cigarettes.’”

In January 2020, he was referred to the Mount Sinai Lung Transplantation Program. That led to expert, compassionate care and a double lung transplant that has changed his life.

Pamela Philippsborn-Rosenbach, NP, a member of the Mount Sinai Lung Transplantation Program, explains, “It was many years after that exposure that James started having symptoms in his lungs, which is the case for many patients who were exposed at the World Trade Center. A lot of times that is why they don't even realize it has anything to do with that.”

James was first diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. “But as time went on, he was getting worse at a much quicker rate than we would normally expect in a COPD patient, needing a lot more oxygen and many more functional difficulties,” Ms. Philippsborn-Rosenbach says. “So we did further testing and realized that his lung disease was not just generic COPD.”

James had developed a condition called silicosis. This is a condition where silica, a material found in sand and certain construction materials, collects in the lungs. His condition was so severe that the only effective treatment available was a double lung transplant. 

“I remember it was very hard for him to speak,” Reena Joseph, NP says. “Even getting every word out, he was breathing heavily. It almost was as if he didn't want to talk too much because of the breathing.”

Harish Seethamraju, MD, Medical Director for the Mount Sinai Lung Transplantation Program, and Scott Scheinin, MD, Surgical Director of the Mount Sinai Lung Transplantation Program, oversaw his care and transplant surgery.

“When the lung disease gets worse, it puts undue strain on the heart. The more common condition that we see is on the right side of the heart, which is pulmonary hypertension,” Dr. Seethamraju says. “But in Mr. Kelly, it was the diastolic dysfunction, which is the left side of the heart, putting undue pressure in the lungs, causing him to be extremely limited. He was our first lung transplant at our new program here at Mount Sinai.”

His double lung transplant surgery, in March 2022, took seven hours and was a complete success.

“Twelve hours later they got me out of bed,” James says. “I got up and walked, and I just couldn't believe it. When people came to see me, they were like, ‘Are you kidding?  You’re up and walking a day after surgery?’ It was an amazing feeling to be breathing.”

For the first three months after the surgery, James returned every week for a bronchoscopy, along with monthly bloodwork testing. Within two months, James was starting to feel like his old self again. The team at the Mount Sinai Lung Transplantation Program credit the speed of his recovery to his determination to stay in shape as much as possible both before and after surgery.

“There's always a period of adjustment to the medication and all the side effects and everything that comes with that. But he bounced back pretty quickly,” Ms. Philippsborn-Rosenbach says. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that when he went in for the transplant surgery, he had been doing his pulmonary rehab and trying to stay in shape. We find that patients who do that take less time to recover afterward than patients who are really not mobile.”

James passed the anniversary of his transplant in March 2023 and has had no major medical issues related to the procedure during that time.

“They have kept a very close eye on me, which is great,” James says. “But I have not had anything out of the ordinary happen, other than minor changes to the levels of immunosuppressant medicines I’m being given. To make it to the one year mark and not have to be hospitalized, it’s huge.  For a lung transplant, that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Since the transplant, James has been able to return to work as a consultant and has been living life to the fullest again with his family. “In the weeks and months after the transplant, I have been able to see my son off to his prom, watch him graduate from high school, teach him how to drive, see him receive his second black belt, take my family on a long overdue vacation to Virginia Beach, and most of all to have more time to spend with the love of my life!  I never would have been able to do any of these things without Mount Sinai's amazing team,” James says.

“I just can’t stress enough how great the Mount Sinai staff are. From the valets to the surgeons and everyone inbetween.  I don’t say that lightly.  And to be comfortable with your doctors and their team, really, I can't express how important that is. It changes the way you look at everything. It's a partnership, that’s for sure. I couldn't possibly express how grateful I am for a second chance at life, because not everyone gets that chance.”

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