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Patients give transplanted lungs a workout at Hancock

Fourteen months ago, Sean Sullivan got a phone call as he sat on the couch watching SportsCenter — each breath as he spoke wheezing in and out of his lungs — which operated on 19 percent capacity.

Sports highlights faded into background noise as Sullivan listened: lungs from a donor were available to replace the ones inside his chest that had been ravaged by cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the body to mass produce lung-clogging mucus.

On Sunday, those new lungs served as a mighty bellows as Sullivan ran 94 floors to the top of the Hancock Building alongside the woman who was on the other end of the phone: Jennifer Johnson, a registered nurse who serves as lung transplant coordinator at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

“It’s a great way to honor my donor,” Sullivan said after the climb. “A phenomenal feeling.”

Johnson stood beside her patient and offered an arm as tears welled in his eyes.

“Making the call is my favorite,” she said. “Because everybody wants the call, but then when they get the call it’s a surprise, you’re not ready, you don’t think in that moment that it’s really happening, because you wait and you wait and you forget that you can actually dream again.”

Sullivan, 41, who lives in south suburban Olympia Fields and works as a marketing manager for the Cremation Society of Illinois, finished the run — all 1,632 steps — in about 54 minutes.

He tested his lung capacity last week. It was 83 percent.

He was one of eight lung transplant patients who ran the 19th annual Hustle Up the Hancock as part of the Loyola’s Lung Angel team.

The race, organized by the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association, like all endurance tests, draws participants fueled by all manner of causes.

On the other end of the spectrum was Joe Aurelio, 53, CEO of Aurelio’s Pizza, who climbed with a cheese pizza strapped to his hand in order to cement a Guinness World Record for highest pizza delivery on foot.

“We’re feeding all the medics today,” Aurelio said with a laugh before the climb. “So I know I’ll be in good hands if I happen to not make it.”

Aurelio beat his goal of 19:59, which is the year his family opened the business.

Aurelio’s Pizza CEO Joe Aurelio before delivering a pizza to the top of the Hancock Building in an attempt to gain a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times