Meet Michael & Elfie Finn-Mckenzie

Michael and Elfie Finn-Mckenzie’s journey to a double lung transplant for Michael began in 2017 when they took a trip to Italy. Before they left, Michael had symptoms of what they both thought was a cold. Cleared by his doctor, they left for Europe as planned, but by their second day in Italy, Elfie was concerned about her husband’s health.

“I just didn’t like the way he looked,” she says. “So, we went to an English-speaking doctor, and he said Michael needed to be in a hospital now.”

Michael remained in an Italian hospital for 10 days. During that time, the medical team discovered that he had a bacterium in his lungs. This bacterium had thrived and spread because of the conditions in the airplane during their flight.

“Had we stayed at home it probably wouldn’t have developed the way that it did.”

After being discharged from the hospital, they returned to their home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Michael and Elfie were both ministers in the United Methodist Church, but with the health challenges Michael was experiencing, he did not feel he was able to continue leading his congregation.

“His voice was giving him so much trouble,” says Elfie, “that he told me ‘I don’t think I can continue preaching anymore.’ So, he retired, I continued to work, and we moved into our house that we had built for retirement.”

It was a retirement very different from the one either of them had imagined. Michael’s struggles with his voice grew and he began coughing more frequently. He and Elfie visited a series of doctors – each of whom offered different diagnoses as Michael’s health continued to worsen. Finally, in 2020, Michael and Elfie were given a definitive diagnosis: interstitial lung disease.

“He basically said there’s no cure for it,” Elfie recalls.

“He as much as alluded to Elfie that you probably ought to have a phone number of hospice because this is just going to go downhill,” Michael adds. “He’s not going to get better; he’ll plateau in places but it’s only going to get worse.”

They decided to look for other options and their search led them to a Johns Hopkins study and a meeting with a doctor there in 2021. This was the first time that a lung transplant was suggested as a possible treatment. However, during the last test performed as part of the transplant evaluation process, blockages were discovered in Michael’s heart that would require triple bypass – a procedure that, coupled with a transplant, they did not have the team to perform.

Michael and Elfie reached out to several other hospitals, including the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Kenneth McCurry reviewed their material and developed an alternative to triple bypass: a surgery to put in a series of stents instead, after which Michael could be listed.

Of their journey to transplant, Elfie believes it is important for people to realize how long it can take for a patient to be listed, let alone receive a transplant.

“It’s not as if its ‘Oh, this person needs a transplant, let’s put them on a list and do it now.’ It took us two years to get on the list.”

It was around Thanksgiving of 2023 that Michael was listed at the Clinic. He was also listed at Johns Hopkins that December. During the wait for the call, Michael faced continued health challenges: he was on an oxygen concentrator and breathing was a struggle, hospitalized for three days and put on an intravenous does of steroids, and had lost a lot of weight because of his illness. Michael recalls looking into the mirror and hardly recognizing himself he had gotten so thin.

As Michael contended with these health challenges, Elfie was preparing for an extended stay in either Baltimore or Cleveland.

“We really wanted to come to Cleveland,” she says. “The primary reason we wanted to come to the Clinic was Transplant House.”

There was no equivalent housing option in Baltimore. Elfie was looking at Airbnbs, room rentals, and cheaper hotels. She found some places that seemed great and would fit their budget, but they required her to provide a definitive check-in date to secure a reservation. For those on the transplant waiting list, there’s nothing definitive about the timeline to transplant. Having a place like Transplant House that would work to accommodate their uncertain schedule made a complicated medical journey a little bit easier.

During their stay in Cleveland, beginning in January of 2024, Transplant House helped them both – even before Michael stayed a single night at the House.

“When you have a transplant and you’re in the hospital,” Michael explains, “you have a caregiver – you’re concerned about them. So, knowing she was here, that she was taken care of, and she had the resources and the shuttle, I didn’t worry about her as much. I knew she had a community that cared about her.”

For Elfie, the feeling of community was an essential part of her experience at Transplant House.

“Everybody was super nice. There was a support system and people you could talk with. You’re worrying about everybody else’s family members and they’re worrying about yours – everybody is checking up on one another.”

And this community of care she found at the House was with Elfie on the hospital shuttle and in the hospital too.

“I wouldn’t have had this if I was in a hotel or a separate house,” she says. “I wouldn’t know what was going on with people; but here we sit together at breakfast, we have dinner together.”

Elfie was grateful to have a group of people she could talk to who understood what the journey she was on was like and with whom she could share the difficult moments and the joyful ones. She also appreciated having someone like Annette Humberson, Transplant House’s on-staff transplant social worker, as a resource, who could provide help and guidance for the emotional and financial aspects of being a caregiver, as well as address questions about insurance and navigating the hospital system.

As for Michael, he believes that knowing his wife and caregiver was in a place that was safe, supportive, and caring helped him focus on what was most important: healing.

“When I was in the hospital,” Michael explains, “we would text each other at night, or video chat, or watch NCIS in two separate buildings. It meant a lot for me to know that she was here, and I didn’t have to worry about how she was going to get to and from the hospital.”

Michael’s double lung transplant was on January 30, 2024. When Michael joined Elfie at the House thirty days later, on February 29, having a transitional space between the hospital and home was more important than he initially realized. After his month and a half long stay in a hospital room, Michael found himself feeling claustrophobic at times.

“There were places where I would just ask Elfie ‘Don’t shut the door,’” he recalls. “It took me awhile to get over that. So, the apartment here had a little more room and I could get out and wander around.”

Little Italy became a favorite destination (Michael quickly became a fan of Mama Santa’s and cookies from Presti’s) and climbing to the top of Cedar Road hill to see Lakeview Cemetery was a goal for him during his recovery.

Elfie at a Tuesday morning breakfast holding a Flat Stanley sent by her grandson. The Flat Stanley became a good motivator for her and Michael to go out and explore the sites around Transplant House.

Michael and Elfie rang the bell on March 22 and went home to Virginia about three and a half weeks after his release from the hospital. Their journey to this moment had spanned nearly seven years since his first hospitalization in Italy. They both know that the road ahead has challenges too.

“We were told that in the first-year lung patients are prone to have issues,” Elfie says. “But it’s better than the alternative.”

Their appreciation for the medical professionals, Michael’s donor, and the support they’ve received during their journey from family, friends, and coworkers is apparent. So, too, is their gratitude for the community of care, fellowship, and comfort they experienced during their stay at Transplant House.

“This is a non-profit that I don’t think is matched anywhere else,” Michael says. “The type of ministry you all do here is just amazing.”

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