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Man gets double lung transplant after getting the flu: 'That was my ticket to live'

Michael Bise, a father of three, was initially diagnosed with influenza A that later turned into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
St. Joseph's Norton Thoracic Institute
/ Source: TODAY

Michael Bise figured it would just be a quick trip to the walk-in clinic for a remedy when he got the flu from his daughter in January.

The 30-year-old father of three from Wyoming didn't return home again for five months after being treated at four different hospitals, undergoing a life-saving double lung transplant in Arizona, and then witnessing the birth of his daughter.

"I just don't take life for granted anymore after what I've been through,'' Bise told TODAY. "It means a lot more to be with my family now."

Wyoming father Michael Bise held his new baby daughter just weeks after needing a double lung transplant that saved his life. St. Joseph's Norton Thoracic Institute

Bise's odyssey began after he waited about four or five days from when he first experienced flu symptoms to get checked out. He was diagnosed with influenza A in late January at a local hospital in the family's hometown of Wheatland.

However, he started coughing much more and then began vomiting frequently, which resulted in him being transferred to a larger hospital in the capital, Cheyenne, two days later.

Bise had no underlying condition that could have exacerbated his symptoms, although he had not gotten a flu shot. He had no idea the simple flu could grow into something life-threatening for a healthy 30-year-old.

His family was stunned when doctors at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center diagnosed him with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a form of life-threatening respiratory failure that causes scarring in the lungs.

Only about 64 to 78 people out of 100,000 contract ARDS in a given year and it carries a mortality rate of 43%, according to a 2015 study.

"When you hear of people dying from the flu, it’s typically from a severe case of acute respiratory distress syndrome,” said Dr. Rajat Walia, the medical director of lung transplantation at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute in Phoenix, where Bise's double lung transplant was performed.

"The condition causes a person’s lungs to fill with fluid, making it difficult and at times impossible to breathe, and this can deteriorate to irreversible scarring or fibrosis, which is what happened in Michael’s case."

Bise's 8-year-old daughter, Sierra, was by his bedside as he was treated for ARDS, a life-threatening respiratory condition. St. Joseph's Norton Thoracic Institute

When the flu develops into ARDS, it's usually the influenza A strain, according to Walia.

Bise's wife, Marisha, 29, was four months pregnant and taking care of their children Carter, 11, and Sierra, 8, as she watched doctors in Cheyenne intubate her husband to try to relieve the stress on his lungs.

She was confronted with the prospect of becoming a mother of three and losing her husband.

"It was like being blindsided, like being hit by a train," she told TODAY. "I don't know how else to explain it. I was very traumatized."

He was then transferred in February to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Denver so that he could be put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which oxygenates a patient's blood outside the body and then pumps it back in, essentially taking over the function of the heart and lungs to let them heal.

"If he were to go off ECMO, it would've been minutes (until he died),'' Marisha said. "The machine was the only thing keeping him alive."

"Many patients will recover on a ventilator or ECMO, but a few cases need to go further because scarring in the lungs develops to the point where they're not recovering,'' Walia said. "A lot depends on how quickly patients get to the hospital to be first diagnosed."

Bise is especially thankful to be with his baby daughter, Harper, and his family during this holiday season. St. Joseph's Norton Thoracic Institute

Bise was on ECMO for a month, but his condition was not improving. Doctors told his family that he would need a double lung transplant or he would die because he could not remain on the ECMO machine indefinitely.

He also contracted an infection in his lung called burkholderia, which Walia said is rarely found outside of people who have cystic fibrosis. The infection precluded him being able to get the double lung transplant in Colorado and ultimately led him to being moved by emergency medical air transport to St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute in Phoenix.

Bise represented a high-risk case because of the infection and his blood being so thin after being on ECMO for a month. Doctors at St. Joseph's put him on an antibiotic regimen to clear out the infection.

Less than two weeks after his arrival, Bise was cleared to have the lung transplant. Marisha had joined him in Arizona by that point.

"As soon as I found out, I instantly FaceTimed my wife,'' Bise said. "It was a very high-risk surgery, but for me it was more exciting than scary. That was my ticket to live right there."

"I tend to be more of a nervous person, so I was very anxious,'' Marisha said. "I wanted to get over that bump, because we knew that was the only way we were going to get him home."

He underwent a seven-hour transplant surgery in April while Marisha was 8 1/2 months pregnant.

"It was just nerve-wracking to be sitting in that waiting room,'' she said. "I couldn't eat or do anything but sit and then pace around."

After his successful surgery, Bise went into in-patient therapy to try to regain his strength after losing significant weight and muscle.

While he was still recovering, Marisha went into labor in May. His infectious disease doctor had to coordinate with the obstetrics team at St. Joseph's to make sure it was safe for Bise to be present for the birth.

He wore a mask as he held his baby daughter, Harper, thinking about how close he came to never meeting her.

Bise's doctors had to coordinate with his wife's doctors to make sure it was safe for him to be there for his daughter Harper's birth.St. Joseph's Norton Thoracic Institute

"It was amazing,'' he said.

"It was like one of those stories you see only a few times in our career, but it inspires you forever,'' Walia said. "This was very rewarding for our team. It was one of those cases that touched everybody in so many ways."

The family returned to Wyoming from Arizona later that month. Bise is on a daily medication regimen and has to return to Phoenix every six weeks for checkups, but he has been able to return to work part-time as an electrician.

"(Coming home) was a relief, but also kind of a challenge because of the altitude here (of 4,000 feet),'' he said. "It took a lot out of me, but it was great to be home."

"I had a lot of emotions tied to our house from before I left, so it was strange to think about all we had went through, finally seeing him here and back home, it was surreal,'' Marisha said.