Steven Abrahamson was the picture of health, unaware that a storm was brewing in his lungs.
“I woke up one morning, and I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “It felt like I lost 40 percent of my breath.”
Months to Live
To say Steven lived an active life might be an understatement. He went to the gym nearly every day and had run six miles just a few weeks before his symptoms started.
Steven sought treatment from doctors in his home state of Arizona as he got increasingly sicker every day. At the same time, he was determined to keep living his life.
“I was still trying to work out, but I was turning purple and coughing, with tears streaming down my cheeks,” he said. “It felt like I was trying to breathe with a wet towel over my mouth.”
Eventually, he was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease (ILD), a broad category of lung diseases where patients develop inflammation and/or scarring in their lungs. Unfortunately, for many forms of the disease, few effective treatments exist.
“The doctor told me I was going to die,” he said. “But I didn’t want to believe him – I thought I would get better on my own.”
Steven doggedly pursued answers and tried an array of holistic treatments – most of which made his symptoms worse.
Eventually, he got so sick that he was medivacked to an intensive care unit in Minnesota, where doctors told him that he had, at most, a couple of months to live and advised that he get his affairs in order.
Finding National Jewish Health
Steven and his wife, Claudia, were desperately searching for anything that might extend his life. They got on the internet to find “the best” place for lung disease and found National Jewish Health – the leading respiratory hospital in the nation and home to the largest and oldest ILD program in the country.
Within days, they had an appointment at National Jewish Health. But, Steven almost didn’t make it.
When he landed in Denver, he could hardly walk, and the high altitude only made things worse. Hours before his appointment, Steven passed out in the hotel lobby.
His blood oxygen level was dangerously low, and he was rushed by ambulance to a local emergency room. Steven told doctors he had an appointment at National Jewish Health in an hour and a half.
“They told me that they were trying to save my life – that I might not make it,” he said.
Fortunately, doctors were able to stabilize him and he left with supplemental oxygen to help him breathe.
‘Music to My ears’
He finally made it to his appointment at National Jewish Health, where he saw Tristan Huie, MD, a pulmonologist who specializes in ILD.
Dr. Huie confirmed that Steven had ILD, but he also said National Jewish Health may be able to help.
“That was music to my ears,” said Steven.
He saw a team of specialists during his three-day visit, including rheumatologist Barbara Goldstein, MD, MMSc. Some patients develop ILD because they have autoimmune diseases. National Jewish Health has a specialized Autoimmune Lung Center, where pulmonologists and rheumatologists come together to treat these complicated conditions.
“They were trying to figure out why my immune system was going crazy and attacking my lungs,” Steven said. “I remember Dr. Goldstein told me they were going to ‘bring out the big guns to quiet things down.’”
Dr. Goldstein recommended chemotherapy, which Steven initially resisted.
“I didn’t want to do chemo, but I knew I was sick … I knew I was dying,” he said. “It really humbles you.”
A Turning Point
Steven was too sick to come back to Denver for treatment, so Drs. Goldstein and Huie worked with doctors in Arizona to manage his care.
Throughout his treatment, Steven continued to go to the gym. He was still on oxygen therapy and found a pair of glasses that would deliver oxygen while he worked out. Around the gym, he was known to carry his oxygen tank with him and earned the nickname “Tank.”
After six rounds of chemotherapy over an eight-month period, Steven feels like himself again. He is continuing with a treatment to keep his immune system in check and no longer needs supplemental oxygen. Drs. Goldstein and Huie continue to work with Steven’s doctors in Arizona.
“I am not cured, but everything has quieted down,” he said. “I had the best doctors in the world – they knew what was going on. They saved my life. My wife and I are incredibly thankful to National Jewish Health.”
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