ROCK FALLS – It wasn’t that long ago when Terry Heeren found himself wondering whether he’d drawn his last breath.
Today, the Rock Falls man can breathe a little easier, thanks to a person he’s never met, but whose lung is keeping him alive.
It didn’t hurt either that decades of hard work and exercise helped keep him in shape, stuffing inserts into newspapers and working out at the YMCA for more than 30 years.
"I worked for 43 years at the Rockford Register-Star," the 70-year-old Vietnam veteran and grandfather of seven said Feb. 7 – the 1-year anniversary of his transplant.
A native of Deer Grove, Heeren was a foreman at the newspaper, where he also helped produce magazines. He'd hang out in the newsroom, getting to know the sports reporters, a natural fit for the man with a love of Chicago sports teams.
Heeren's dedication to the Cubs, Bulls, and other teams is apparent. A large Cubs poster hangs above his TV, mixed among the prints of John Lennon and the Grateful Dead and other rock and roll decor.
And to think, he almost missed the Cubs clinching the World Series in 2016, after a 108-year drought.
"I was near death when that came," the bearded, slightly-built Heeren recalled.
After Heeren retired in 2013, he was living in Byron when he first noticed a persistent cough.
"I didn't think so much of it,” Heeren said, “But it never did go away.”
He didn't tell his doctor about the cough at first, but when he eventually did the doctor found that what was taking Heeren's breath was fibrotic non-specific interstitial pneumonia, an incurable lung disease that would require a transplant if Heeren were to live. He wasn't a smoker, and didn't blame the pneumonia on the paper dust he breathed in at the paper.
Heeren and his family went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and he started taking medication to slow the pneumonia's spread, but nothing halted the disease's advance, and he was placed on a waiting list for a lung transplant.
"I was on oxygen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," he said.
Eventually, UW-Madison found a match for Heeren, and he received one lung, since only one was available. He hasn't heard from the family of the donor, but did write them a thank-you letter.
He doesn't move quite as fast as he once did, but he still exercises at the Y several times a week, and does pulmonary rehabilitation on Thursdays at CGH Medical Center. Heeren, who's divorced, also spends time with his children, Terry, Jody, Andrew, and Jerry Heeren, and tries to get to his grandchildren's sporting events and other social activities.
The veteran is careful around crowds, though, since the anti-rejection drugs he has to take weaken immune system.
He now has a regiment involving 22 pill bottles, meting out daily doses of medication in containers – but at least he’s alive.
It's not all smooth sailing, even with Heeren's workout regimen and a liberal dose of caution. He had a close call in September, when he caught a cold and had to be flown by helicopter to Madison.
"I was on a breathing tube. I was asking ‘Is this my last breath'? I wasn't scared," Heeren said.
While Heeren's recovery has been slow, he's gotten back to where he was before the cold. He also doesn't take his lease on life for granted.
"I got a whole year out of life. When people donate, it's really something," Heeren said.
Want to help Terry?
A GoFundMe page to help Heeren defray medical and travel expenses is still taking donations. Go to gofundme.com/terryheeren.