Joel Ray says he first noticed something was wrong in 2008.
“I never slow down – ever. But I walked up the stairs one day and said, ‘My lord, I’m out of shape. I have to get back to the gym.’ From there on out, it got worse and worse. In 2011, I went on oxygen,” says Ray.
Eventually, the Fayetteville, Ark., resident, affectionately known as “J-Ray,” says he couldn’t go more than four steps without resting. He was battling idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a progressive scarring of the lungs that gradually interferes with a person’s ability to breathe. The cause is unknown, and it has no known cure.
“It was terrible. Every day I fought it. Sometimes you just want to quit, but you can’t. You fight,” says Ray. “You also get on the Internet and look at everything you can to try and grasp at what can possibly help you. But with IPF, there are no options but transplant.”
Eventually, Ray made his way to the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center. After a thorough evaluation, he was told he was a candidate for a double lung transplant but needed to lose 30 pounds. He dropped the weight in 30 days.
“I got after it because I had a good incentive,” says Ray. When he reported his weight loss to his physician, he was told to move close to the hospital. “So I moved, and the next day I went on the donor list.”
Nine weeks later, on January 6, 2012, Ray underwent a double lung transplant. He was in the hospital for seven days after his surgery and says his care team described him as an “over-achiever.” He says he has the same mindset now and is feeling better than ever. He spends as much time as possible with his wife and best friend of more than 30 years, Jeany, and together they make the most of life.
“I’m as active as possible. I’m working, going to the gym and playing golf,” says Ray. “I’ll probably never retire-who knows. I’m 60 years old, but I feel like I’m 40.”
Ray says he’s very thankful for his second gift of life.
“All four of my children became organ donors because they were directly touched and know how important it is,” says Ray. “’I communicate with the mother of my donor, which means so much. I encourage everyone to be an organ donor.”
And Ray is committed to mentoring others who have IPF. He uses the Internet as a way to start the conversation. A few of his favorite websites include Barnes-Jewish’s Facebook, Twitter and Transplant Blog, as well as Inspire.com.
He says he meets people online with IPF who have no idea what to do or where to turn. “So I contact them, and we talk. It’s a lot better than the unknown. I try to call somebody every week. I let them know there’s hope.”
Jeany adds, “People who don’t have access to a hospital like Barnes-Jewish need to be aware that it’s an option. There are places like this and there are possibilities.”
Ray says he feels the possibilities for him are endless, too, because he adopted a few simple rules for himself.
“I did everything they told me to do. I followed the rules,” says Ray. ”Take your medicine, do what you’re told to do, have a good attitude, be physical and you’ll do well. I’m doing well, anyway!”