School board trustee Don Hansen undergoes double-lung transplant

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For nearly two years, Don Hansen had been on the waiting list for a double- lung transplant.

“Every time the phone rang, your heart skipped a beat … is this the call we’ve been waiting for?” said Lori Hansen, his wife.

On the night of Dec. 10, the call came. The Hansens had about half an hour to get ready before flying out of the Powell Municipal Airport on a medical flight just after midnight on Dec. 11.

Hansen soon underwent surgery at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado; the surgery spanned more than seven hours.

“I’m able to breathe,” Hansen said on Friday. “I still have to breathe on a little oxygen. It’s not a fast recovery.”

Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) several years ago, Hansen’s lungs were giving out.

“When they pulled my old lungs out, they figured I had 5 percent lung function,” he said.

“They could also see some remote asbestos exposure,” Lori added. “When asbestos gets into the lungs, it’s basically like insulation — it crystalizes. So that was part of the problem also.”

In recent years, the health problems forced Hansen to stop operating his farm equipment repair business. But he’s continued serving on the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees and was elected to a second term in November.

“He has worked hard to be an effective board member, and we admire him for those efforts,” wrote R.J. Kost, a former administrator for the Powell school district. He’s organized a fundraising effort called “A Breath of Life for Don Hansen.”

Hansen had to carry oxygen with him to school board meetings and couldn’t attend any out-of-town functions, in case he got the call for a transplant.

“During this time, knowing you could die any day was a challenge both physically and mentally, but Don kept moving forward,” Kost wrote on the fundraising campaign’s GoFundMe page.

When the call finally came, the Hansens said it was scary, emotional, exciting and overwhelming.

“It’s hard to describe … you prepare for it, but when you actually do get [the call], you don’t know how to act,” Lori said.

As Hansen recovers from the transplant surgery and adjusts to his new set of lungs, he and his wife are grateful.

“That was the best Christmas present we could have gotten,” Lori said.

When Hansen first woke up from surgery, his medical team did reality orientation, asking him where he was at and what day it was.

“One of the questions that they asked Don was, ‘Do you know what season it is?’ They meant spring, summer, winter or fall,” Lori recalled. “Well, without any hesitation, Don looked at them just as serious as he could and said, ‘Yes, it’s hunting season.’”

Hansen is looking forward to being able to enjoy the outdoors again.

“I hope to do some fishing or hunting — take those grandkids and do some stuff with them,” he said.

The Hansens have three children and five grandchildren.

Through his transplant, Hansen said he gained more family.

“The way I describe it is, I have my original family with my brothers and sisters, then I have my family with my sons, daughter, grandchildren,” he said. “And now I have a lung transplant family. So I’ve got three families now.”

The Hansens have been thankful for all of the medical staff, from the Guardian Flight nurse who was a Northwest College grad to the transplant team in Colorado.

“The people down here have been phenomenal, just phenomenal,” Hansen said. “They’re good people.”

Hansen’s primary care physician from Powell’s 307Health happened to be with family in Colorado and also stopped by for a visit.

“Dr. [Mike] Tracy showed up at my room the fifth day I was in here; that is top-notch service,” Hansen said, adding, “It makes you feel good about Powell, Wyoming.”

Hansen faces a long road for recovery and must remain in Colorado for at least three months.

He hopes to be back at school board meetings in April.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Hansen said.

He was discharged from the hospital in late December, but had to go back a few days later due to complications, including an infection at the incision area and pleurisy around the left lung.

“It’s common things that they see during transplants,” Hansen said.

Doctors also are learning how his body reacts to new anti-rejection medications. When he’s able to return home, Hansen will have to wear a mask in public to protect himself from germs.

His immune system is knocked down “so he doesn’t reject those lungs,” Lori said.

Lori came home over the weekend so she could return to work this week as the bookkeeper for Blair’s Super Market.

Blair’s owner Brent Foulger “has been really good, doing as much of my job as he can,” she said, adding, “He can’t do without me for the full three months … I need to get back to work, and I carry the insurance for us.”

The Hansens’ son, Bryant, who serves in the military, will stay in Colorado with Don until February, and other people will also help out. The Hansens are renting a furnished two-bedroom place through the Transplant Living Center.

All funds raised through “A Breath of Life for Don Hansen” will help with their expenses.

“Lori and Don started planning for expenses two years ago when Don was placed on the transplant list, but housing in the Denver area has doubled so the money they have saved is not going to cover such expenses,” Kost wrote on the GoFundMe page.

People can donate to the Don and Lori Hansen Medical Account at the Bank of Powell, which Caroline Kost recommended since GoFundMe takes a small amount per transaction.

Hansen thanked R.J. and Caroline Kost for “going above and beyond.”

“We’ve had some good friends step up to the plate … it’s just overwhelming; it’s heartwarming,” he said. “It makes you feel good about where you live.”

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