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Dotson patiently waits for lung donor

Kevin Dotson, diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, now awaits a compatible lung donor. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

A year ago, Kevin Dotson was slaloming down a ski hill at Lutsen.

Now, with bags packed, he's waiting for the phone to ring with news that a lung donor has been found.

Kevin, 56, has been diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, causing progressive scarring of the lungs.

In November 2010, Kevin began experiencing a dry cough. By January 2011, he detected shortness of breath. He attributed the conditions to being out of shape and carrying a few extra pounds.

But when it got progressively worse, he headed to the doctor in Park Rapids.

He underwent heart tests and a chest x-ray, which revealed an abnormality. He was soon headed to Fargo to see a pulmonary specialist.

"You have lung disease," Kevin and wife Dianna were told "when we walked in the door."

Interstitial lung disease appears to occur when an injury to lungs triggers an abnormal healing response, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Ordinarily, the body generates just the right amount of tissue to repair damage. But with interstitial lung disease, the repair process goes awry and the tissue around the air sacs (alveoli) becomes scarred and thickened. This makes it more difficult for oxygen to pass into the bloodstream.

In most cases, the causes are unknown.

No known cure

Prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid, was prescribed in June.

Six weeks later, the Fargo doctor told the Dotsons the progression of the disease appeared to have stopped. He assured them some live with the disease for a long time - facing steppingstones and plateaus along the way - with possibly a reversal.

But Kevin was not convinced.

By the end of August, doctors recommended a trip to the Mayo Clinic, the earliest available appointment Nov. 14. Meanwhile, a walking test had revealed the need for oxygen.

Up until their travel to the internationally noted health care facility, they assumed the symptoms were reversible.

"We figured Mayo would fix it," Dianna said.

"We were led to believe prednisone could reverse it," Kevin said. "But in reality, it's not curable."

Two days after they met Dr. Andrew Limper, "we knew we were in trouble," Dianna said of test results.

The doctor told them Kevin required a lung transplant, something he'd never determined seeing a patient for the first time.

But the news came as no shock to Kevin.

"Put us on the list," they told the doctor.

But they were soon to learn "it's not that simple."

A patient who becomes a candidate for a transplant must "qualify," undergo tests to assure he/she can survive both physically and psychologically.

The immune system is compromised and transplants often affect the gall bladder.

They would be faced with "two surprises" during the testing regimen, blockage in the left artery, which was corrected via a stint and Plavix, and a high PSA (prostate specific antigen) count, but no sign of cancer was detected.

Doctors agreed to move forward.

A dry run

Now they wait. Bags are packed. A helicopter will be sent from Fargo to transport him to Rochester when a donor is found.

The lungs will come from a person who's been declared brain dead, likely from an accident, whose blood type matches Kevin's B positive.

Doctors have told him a transplant is his only option. They will offer no estimates as to how long he will survive without one.

After surgery, he will spend three months in a rehabilitation center, The Gift of Life Transplant House, Dianna with him for a week, daughter Emily assuming the buddy role the remaining time.

"Even on oxygen, I can't seem to get enough. I can't take a deep breath," he said of his condition last week.

In January, heading home from Mayo after additional tests, the hospital called to say they had lungs which may be a match.

They turned around and by 8:30 p.m., after "saying our goodbyes," Kevin was on the operating table. Doctors had warned them 20 percent of these calls are "dry runs." They assured the family there would be no incision until the lungs were determined to be healthy and compatible.

By 10:30 p.m., the doctors decided it was a "no go."

'Should have a miracle'

Meanwhile, support on the home front has been "overwhelming," Dianna said of the cards, calls and prayers. "With all the people praying, we should have a miracle."

The former passengers on the school bus driver's route have stopped by, offering cheer.

Saturday, a benefit dinner and silent auction will be held from 4:30 to 8 p.m. for Kevin at the Legion. (Cash donations may also be sent to Citizens National Bank.)

He'd initially balked at the idea, until he remembered being on the other side of the issue. He realized friends need an outlet. "A benefit is a call to action."

Meanwhile, Kevin remains optimistic, buoyed by support shown and research conducted by his Mayo physician.

Dr. Limper spends mornings working in a laboratory on a cure for the disease, successful in six mice but not yet determined to be compatible for human use.

"I'd love it if they found a cure before they cut me open," he said.

"The good Lord has a plan for me," Kevin said. "I believe that. We have to wait and see what it is."

For more information on Kevin's journey, visit care Go to "bus driver Kevin."