In the middle of a Giants game in October with breathing tubes in his nose, Mickey McCabe received a call from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania with good news. They’d found a matching donor for his lung, which was diseased with incurable pulmonary fibrosis.
Most patients wait six months to two years to hear back. McCabe got the call in 28 days. “I was so surprised,” he said. “I think I said to her, for who?”
“For you, sir,” the caller replied. “I said, ‘Holy moly, we’re in play!’ I drove to Philadelphia myself. Nothing stopped me.”
McCabe, 70, founder and president of McCabe Ambulance Service, was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which stiffens and scars the lung, making breathing very difficult and the lung extremely vulnerable to infection and disease. He doesn’t drink tap water for risk of bacteria causing infection. The only treatment is to replace the lung, and even when a patient is matched with a donor, the body’s immune system can never fully accept the lung. Medication can slow the rejection, but never stop it.
“Psychologically, I was always believing this will work out, that I will get something,” McCabe said. “They’ll either come up with a new drug or get a new set of lungs.”
He continues to work at the company he founded in 1973, albeit from the safety of a desk, away from the risk of disease and infection. If the mind quits, so too might the lung.
“I really hate that phrase, ‘Live every day like it’s your last.’ That’s such bullshit,” he said. “If today was your last day, you would stop reading the papers and get a good book and sit on the beach.” McCabe could have retired years ago, but he feels a sense of purpose in the business of saving lives. Plus, he’s not a big reader. The point is, he is content right where he is.
“You come to the realization that there are no guarantees in life, and therefore I don’t know if I have a year or 30 years.”
McCabe’s condition forced him to live life with astronautic precaution, making sure to carry enough oxygen for two-way trips. “I cherish now that I can go around without worrying that I’ll get in traffic without oxygen,” McCabe said.
The transplant was a success. McCabe looks well and feels stronger every day. But he’s not yet out of the woods. His transplant anniversary will be in October, a big benchmark in determining the body’s ability to accept a foreign organ. His body is still deciding while he pops 40 pills a day to convince it.
Cut From the Hero’s Cloth
McCabe was diagnosed 13 years after Ground Zero delivered three straight days’ worth of hazardous dust into his lungs, and was put on the waiting list for a new lung on Sept. 11, 2016. Being so close to lower Manhattan, McCabe was called upon in the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“Just as the second plane was hitting I was coming out of the tunnel, and I’m looking at all this carnage and people jumping off the roof, but I wanted to rescue them. We could do it and we’ve done it before,” he said. He described rescuing people from the lobby of the North Tower after their long, dark, panicked descent down the building’s stairwells. Burning jet fuel jammed the revolving doors, trapping people inside, with police resorting to shooting glass windows for people to escape.
In contrast to the immediate deaths of those who jumped or were trapped, the toxic dust inhalation resulted in slow and painful deaths years later from cancer and other diseases. McCabe is peeved the government said the dust would not have the adverse health effects that it did, but he doesn’t dwell on the past.
“There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t go in and do it again,” he said. “That’s the fabric we’re cut from. I’m not angry at anyone.” He’s not even mad at the Environmental Protection Agency administrator at the time, Christine Todd Whitman, who infamously assured the public that the air was not a threat to health.
Exceptional Support System
Pulmonary fibrosis patients are extremely vulnerable to disease, and are therefore strongly advised to remain in the hospital while awaiting a new lung. McCabe, however, had the privilege of waiting in his own home, under the care of his loving family, and the 135 medically trained professionals he employs across the street at the 24/7 McCabe Ambulance Service. His wife is a nurse, and his son is McCabe’s chief of operations.
“For all these years, my entire career, I was in charge,” McCabe said. “I was the go-to person. Then I became the person going to everyone else. You need help in ways you never thought before.”
One of his staff would pick him up every morning at 4:45 to drive to Philadelphia for physical therapy and make it back to Bayonne by one o’clock. Having a medically trained professional as a chauffeur is one of the perks of running an ambulance company, but it cannot supplant a supportive family.
“If you’re living in a household that is less than totally functional, you can become non-compliant with your medications and with your therapies,” McCabe said. “And that’s a tremendous detriment to the acceptance by the body of the lung.”
Hold Your Breath
Mickey McCabe’s work now is administrative, involving oversight, planning, training, and things you would expect of the head honcho. As EMS coordinator for the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management, he focuses on programming to help the community adjust protocol and preparations for the world’s ever-evolving threats.
He could have retired many years ago. “That’s not in my composition,” he said. “And the world is changing so much every single day that I feel that I just need to be there at least for the time being, doing less than previously but still contributing on a daily basis.”
He foresees major breakthroughs in medical science where organs can be repaired rather than replaced, like inserting a gene into a patient’s cells (gene therapy), or custom growing them for their recipients (organ culture, in vitro in a Petri dish). Organ culture theoretically reduces the greatest risk of conventional transplant surgery—rejection.
“You want to keep your body parts as long as you can,” McCabe joked. “I think there is progress being made toward repairing the lung, cleansing the lung. Just in our lifetime we’ve seen significant strides.”
The lung is possibly the most challenging organ to transplant. And McCabe doesn’t foresee brain transplants. Too much wiring, he pondered. “If they do, I know a lot of people who will be in line,” he laughed.
“Right now, this is an absolute gift from the donor family and a gift from God,” McCabe said. Transplants are miracles of medical science and human kindness. No one is obliged to donate his or her organs. We check that box on our licenses, acknowledging that we leave our material bodies and have it in our power to give the gift of life.
The United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the country’s organ transplant system, allows transplant recipients to contact the donor family after a year. McCabe plans to write his donor family a letter in hopes they will meet: “I want to thank them. I want to introduce myself, tell them about how I became a victim and how I needed a transplant and how their benevolent act allowed me to continue life.”—BLP