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Retired Army Major Overcomes Disease Through Transplantation

Joe Pratt proved himself a hero, serving two tours in Vietnam serving his country. Later, he would find he needed a hero to save his own life: a hero to give the gift of life.

New Jersey resident, Joe Pratt, is a hero for many reasons.  He spent much of his life serving the United States as an officer and major in the Army for 20 years.  He also had two tours in Vietnam and received a Bronze Star of honor from the President of the United States. And, he was an instructor at the Airborne School in Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he served as part of the Parachute Infantry Regiment and trained paratroopers.

When Joe retired in 1978, he never thought he would be facing the biggest struggle of his life.  He noticed over the next few years that his breathing became progressively more restricted. He pushed on and tried to continue life as normal, but eventually he became so out of breath that he knew something was very wrong.  He went to his doctor and they diagnosed him with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic and obstructive lung disease that is characterized by poor airflow.

After several years had passed, and what seemed like a lifetime of tolerating the suffocating symptoms of the disease, Joe made the decision to go see a specialist in 2012.  Recognizing how deteriorated Joe’s health had become, the doctor put him on oxygen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Later that year, Joe had a bad exacerbation due to the COPD and was admitted to a local hospital.

After recuperating in the hospital, the doctor wanted to send Joe home.  This was the last straw for his family, especially his daughter.  They saw him suffering and knew he couldn’t just go home and continue life this way.  They decided to take the situation into their own hands.  After a lot of research, Joe’s daughter found a specialist that she thought may be able to help her father.

“The doctor wanted me to go home,” said Joe.  “There didn’t seem to be anything more that they could do with me when I was in the hospital.  My daughter didn’t accept that answer.”  His new doctor examined him and said something that Joe never thought he’d hear – “you are going to need a lung transplant.”

“The testing for the transplant was the hardest part,” said Joe.  “I was listed on the organ transplant waitlist and tried to have a somewhat normal life. I tried to get out of the house.  It was a chore, but I did it.  The real hardship is on the caregivers.  I guess I never realized how sick I was, but my family – they really struggled with it,” he said.

After 6 weeks of waiting, Joe was given a second chance at life – a new pair of lungs.  He says that he would like to meet the family who gave him this tremendous gift.  He is so overwhelmed with gratitude, knowing that even when the donor family was faced with such a great loss, they still chose to help others.

Joe’s success story is not one that everyone on the waitlist gets to experience.  Currently in the U.S., 20 people die each day while waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. And the waitlist stats are staggering – over 5,000 men, women and children in Gift of Life Donor Program’s region (southern NJ, eastern PA and DE) and more than 110,000 in the U.S. are currently waiting.

Today, Joe said that he is able to do things that he never dreamed of.  He finally feels free to live his life without being sick, tired or tethered to an oxygen machine.  Since receiving the gift of life, Joe devotes much of his time to volunteering for Gift of Life, educating the community about the importance of being an organ and tissue donor.  He volunteers regularly and speaks at high schools and churches throughout NJ to increase organ donor awareness and encourage people to register as donors.  He also formed Team Sky Soldier and participated in April with his family and friends in Gift of Life’s Donor Dash.  He was even able to finish the 3K walk, showing how far he has come.  This year, Team Sky Soldier raised more than $4,500 for the Donor Dash that will be used for educational outreach.

When people question if they want to become a registered organ donor, Joe says, “Look at me.  I’m a product of what happens when people are donors. It saves lives.  Why would you not want to do it?”