Brad Penhale peers over his glasses as he sorts through old photos and newspaper clippings sprawled across his kitchen table.
“It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been interviewed,” said the 57-year-old Sarnia man. “I’m not sure how interesting I am these days.”
At first glance, one might even believe him. But a closer look reveals the hearing aid, skin grafts on his face and nose, and a missing left index finger. His clothes hide the battle wounds stemming from years of needles, dialysis, surgeries, and life-saving organ transplants.
And behind those scars, his heart aches from losing the love of his life to suicide.
But such trials have only strengthened the soul of a man who, by all accounts, should have been gone decades ago.
Born with a chronic lung illness known as bronchiectasis, Penhale was dependent on oxygen 24/7 by his early 30s, and by 34, was told he needed an urgent double-lung transplant.
“At the time, I didn’t even know what that meant,” said Penhale. “They gave me two weeks and said, ‘if we don’t find a donor now, you’re going to die.”
In a tragic twist of fate, a 45-year-old father in Sudbury died after falling from the roof of his home, while putting up Christmas lights. Within hours, Shayne Fletcher’s lungs became Brad Penhale’s lungs, marking history as London’s University Hospital’s first-ever successful double lung transplant — on Dec. 4, 1992.
At the time, survival rates were low for the high-risk surgery, which was still relatively new in Canada.
So when the anti-rejection drugs caused one of his kidneys to shutdown a few short years later, doctors gave him another grim prognosis.
Meanwhile, two years of dialysis caused a vein blockage, which led to the amputation of his left index finger.
“I said I wanted a kidney transplant, but they told me that no one with a double lung transplant has ever survived one,” said Penhale. “They said, ‘You’re going to die on the table.
“I told them I wanted to go for it.”
Not only did Penhale survive the surgery, but today, his lung and kidney capacities are operating at 98% and 94% respectively. He takes just two pills a day.
But a skin cancer diagnosis several years later sidelined Penhale yet again — prompting months of radiation and plastic surgery with skin grafts to his head, face, and most recently his nose.
“The doctors keep telling me this is unheard of; that I’m lucky to be alive,” said Penhale.
But luck, he says, has nothing to do with it. The secret to survival is simple: stay positive, never give up on yourself, and have a little faith.
“I just have this great will to live,” he said. “There are people far worse off than I am, and I always remind myself of that.”
But the most difficult struggle of all came just recently, after his wife lost a long battle with mental illness and took her own life.
“It’s a disease that nobody talks about. And it’s a big problem in Sarnia,” said Penhale, who wants to get more involved in raising awareness about mental illness, in hopes of saving lives. “We have to speak up about it.”
Penhale says he never would have made it this far without the love and support of his family and friends, and longtime boss at St. Clair Auto Repair, Richard Bellevance. He still shows up to work every Saturday.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s been so good to me.”
Penhale walks his dog Carmen several times a day to keep his lungs active, but steers clear of the sun, second hand smoke, and mould. A single cold could have dire effects on his health, so he takes it easy, and keeps his positivity handy.
“Someone gave me the gift of life — why waste it?” he asked. “That’s precious to me.”
Without a computer, Penhale hasn’t been able to stay in contact with the family of the man who gave him the gift of life 23 years ago. It’s likely, he noted, they don’t know he’s still alive.
“Part of him is still alive in me, and I thank God every day,” he said. “It’s not my time to go yet, so I’m going to live life to the fullest, until I’m called home.”