Mount Sinai Hospital performed its first-ever lung transplant procedure in March on James Kelly, a Whitestone resident, who suffered from lung disease for years due to exposure at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Kelly, 58, was working as a chef on Canal Street at the time of the 9/11 attack and volunteered to hand out meals at Ground Zero to first responders in the days following the tragedy.
“They were inundated with people and they needed help,” Kelly said. “So I went down and did what I could. [In] the little amount of time that I was down there, the exposure damaged my lungs terribly. The air was so heavy.”
Kelly said he didn’t think anything of it at the time, but over the coming years, he would develop infection after infection.
“I started getting sick pretty easily,” Kelly said. “I would get a cold, and that would turn into the flu and then bronchitis or pneumonia. It just kept getting worse and more frequent. It feels like being underwater.”
In 2019, Kelly was told by Mount Sinai doctors that the damage to his lungs was irreversible and he would need a transplant. Kelly said that at the worst of it, it felt like he was trying to breathe underwater.
“It’s like being on a gerbil wheel; it’s the same thing over and over,” he said. “You get panicked because you can’t take a breath and then it makes it harder to breathe and you have to calm yourself down.”
Kelly wasn’t able to complete daily activities anymore and especially wasn’t able to keep up with his active job as a chef. Kelly has been in the restaurant business since he was 15; though he never went to culinary school, he was an “Iron Chef” winner, after beating Bobby Flay in a grilling battle in 2007.
“I slowed down a bit. It was not easy at work,” Kelly said. “Even just projects on our house, I loved mowing the lawn, but that all came to a halt. I had to learn how to conserve my energy.”
Kelly received new lungs in March and could not be more thankful for Mount Sinai and his team of doctors and nurses there.
“I could not tell you how fantastic my experience has been,” Kelly said of Mount Sinai. “There are not enough good words to say about them. Everyone is just so accommodating. I drove the nurses nuts because all I wanted to do was walk once I was able to get out of bed. But they were very happy to do it.”
Kelly especially praised his surgeon, Dr. Scott Scheinin, who leads the newly launched Lung Failure and Transplant Program at Mount Sinai.
“Most doctors of their caliber, they’re hard to speak to and relate to but not these guys. They’re there to answer any little question you have,” Kelly said. “I was there just last week and Dr. Scheinin just sat down and chatted with me like we were old friends.”
Kelly said now his quality of life is fantastic, and he never thought he would get to this point. He said he’s been able to get back to living — just this week alone, he took his son to an MMA fight and attended his brother’s 60th birthday party. In a couple of weeks, will be vacationing with his wife.
“Every day there’s something new that I’m so grateful for,” Kelly said.
Kelly plans to reach out to the family of the organ donor to express his gratitude for giving him a chance to live.