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One Man’s Miracle

A Kaiser Permanente physician and double-lung transplant recipient competes in the World Transplant Games to inspire others to give the gift of life. Pictured above, Dr. Pinner at the Transplant Games of America in 2015.

When Scott Pinner, MD, joins the procession at the opening ceremonies of the 21st World Transplant Games later this month in Malaga Spain, he will not walk alone.

Dr. Pinner with his wife Claudette and daughter Madison.

Along with the more than 1,200 athletes from 65 countries, who like Dr. Pinner have received a life-saving organ transplant, he’ll be joined in spirit by the physicians and nurses who helped him to survive a devastating disease and compete again.

“I am so grateful and thankful for them,” he said. “I’ll be thinking about what a miracle it took to get here, and I’ll be thinking of my donor and my donor’s family.”

Dr. Pinner was born with cystic fibrosis and has been a Kaiser Permanente member since the age of 14. Now 42, he is also a Kaiser Permanente Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician who works with musculoskeletal and spinal cord injury patients and stroke survivors at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes mucus in the body to become thick and sticky, and it can lead to serious breathing problems and lung disease.

Like many people with cystic fibrosis, Dr. Pinner’s condition worsened over time and in his late 30s he became gravely ill. Then in 2014, he received a double-lung transplant that saved his life.

An Athletic Youth, a Devastating Decline

Cystic fibrosis patients are encouraged to be as active as possible to help keep their lungs free of mucus, so growing up, Dr. Pinner ran cross country and played soccer and tennis. He said he had 80 percent lung function up until his mid-20s, but by medical school his lungs had started to decline. Over time, the demands of school, the challenges of a medical residency, and the progressive nature of his disease all took their toll.

Three years after he began practicing medicine with Kaiser Permanente it looked like his days as an athlete were over.

“By about 2009, I couldn’t play tennis, couldn’t play soccer, and I couldn’t run any distances because I couldn’t breathe,” he said.

When his condition declined further in 2013, his pulmonary physician, Andrea Glassberg, MD, at Kaiser Permanente Oakland, advised him to start the necessary testing for a possible transplant. In the lead-up to his transplant, he endured many setbacks, including the discovery of colon cancer, serious complications from colon surgery, pneumonia, and numerous stays in the Intensive Care Unit after his lungs repeatedly collapsed.

By January of 2014, he was too ill to work. A few months later he remembers talking to his wife Claudette, who had been caring for him and their 2-year-old daughter Madison at home.

“I said, ‘We can’t take care of me anymore.’ I couldn’t walk to the bathroom. I couldn’t shower. I would get too breathless.”

Dr. Glassberg and Kaiser Permanente Oakland’s Byron Quick, MD, helped Dr. Pinner get on the waiting list for a transplant, then on June 10, 2014 he received life-changing news: A set of donor lungs was available.

The transplant surgery at UCSF went well, and he recovered without significant rejection or infection. Rehab was hard because he had been ill for so long, but within a couple of days after surgery, he was walking, within 5 months he was doing some easy runs, and at six months he returned to work.

“I look at what the transplant enabled me to do, and it’s almost overwhelming,” he said.

Inspiring Others to Give

Three years later, at the World Transplant Games, Dr. Pinner will be competing in the 800 meter run, 5k road race, 3-on-3 basketball tournament, mixed tennis tournament, and exhibition soccer game. He’s hoping his story will inspire others to register as organ donors.

“For every person who donates, there are up to 8 organs that can be used to save 8 lives, and up to 75 people could have their lives changed by the donation of ligaments, bones, skin, and corneas,” he said.

His life was saved by the incredible generosity of one person, and now he said he wants to be an expression of the “awesome gift” he was given.

“When all your energy goes to trying to survive, you can’t do much else. But now I can be a husband and father, I can take care of my patients, and I can try to make people’s lives better.”