Eric Celentano (BSc ’79) went in for an x-ray for tendonitis only to be told a rare fibrosis was gradually hardening his lungs like cement. His prognosis was grim: if he didn’t get a double-lung transplant, the fibrosis would eventually kill him.
It was the kind of news we most often see delivered on TV, but for Celentano it was all too real. “I guess I was stunned, but I didn’t fall off the world because I didn’t feel bad at the time,” says Celentano. “It was three to five years survival from diagnosis because there were no treatments other than double-lung transplant.”
His degree in applied health sciences at Waterloo led him to a successful career that included selling — of all things — respiratory equipment. Thanks to his education and a lifetime in the pulmonary care business, he knew what he was up against. “The first thing I did was educate myself,” he says.
At the time of his diagnosis Celentano was living in British Columbia. Surveying his treatment options he realized his only choice was to move to Toronto in 2014 for care. He was able to afford the move, plus he had family support in the GTA.
With the certainty of a taxing double-lung transplant on his horizon, staying healthy and maintaining a fitness level that would keep him eligible for surgery became his priority.
“I got into a regime of 45-minute power walks every day, and I did those for five years,” he says. His routine bought him several years, but with the clock ticking and the fibrosis gradually hardening his lungs, he needed another level of professional care.
Lauren Day (BSc ’84)
Charge technologist at the pulmonary function lab at University Health Network
“When he came in to our lab for the first time I couldn’t place where I knew him from,” says alumnus Lauren Day from her office in the Pulmonary Function Lab at the University Health Network in Toronto. “He came in and introduced himself, and it just clicked and I said ‘Oh my God, I remember you!’ ”
Celentano was referred to Day’s lab where she could closely monitor his lung function and offer guidance to Celentano’s physicians. Celentano and Day had met decades ago. The two Waterloo kinesiology alumni had graduated only a few years apart and had crossed paths professionally in the early ’90s at a pulmonary function seminar.
As the charge technologist at the pulmonary lab, Day manages the machines and technologists performing pulmonary function tests on lung transplant patients like Celentano. The data her lab collects determines when it’s time for a patient to receive a transplant.
“I’d say Eric was a little more intense than some patients might be. Because of his education and career he knew exactly what the numbers were that he was looking at,” says Day. “He knew if there was any change, if it was good or bad, and what he might be faced with.”
Getting to know a patient, how they communicate, and what their body can handle requires both technical skill and an understanding of human behaviour — abilities Day discovered while an undergraduate student, and honed over her professional career. “We talk them through it, encourage them. You learn a little bit about them, and they open up,” says Day.
It was during these candid moments Celentano and Day had an opportunity to chat about how their lives kept intersecting, as well as their sharing memories for the Waterloo campus in the early 80s.
While their connection was an accident, having a familiar face with many shared experiences energized Celentano to keep on top of exercises that were becoming more difficult with each passing day.
“I didn’t get on oxygen until 2016 probably. I was going down slowly at that point,” says Celentano. “By the end, I couldn’t shower without being on oxygen. I could barely walk down the hallway. I was really starting to struggle.”
As time wore on, the lung function numbers Day was sending to the physicians were just too grave. It was time to start looking for a lung match, and hand over his physiotherapy to a professional.
“Once you get on the list, that’s when they put you into the rehab exercise program to exercise yourself to as good a shape you can be prior to your transplant, “ he says. “That’s when I met Denise.”
Denise Helm (BA ’79)
Physiotherapist in the Toronto lung transplant program at Toronto General Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital, University Health Network
No two patients who arrive at Helm’s clinic are the same — other than they all determined to survive.
“They are facing a life decision. Yes, they have a chance at a new life, but it comes at a lot of cost to each patient. They understand what they have to do, that they have to exercise with us,” she says. “They have such reserve to enable this to happen. As a physiotherapist here, I feel that I can try to bring that out in them, try and have them ‘dig deep’ and find the impetus to keep going in this challenging time that they are having.”
Celentano was no different. He had to draw on different strengths he’d built up over the years to stay committed to his treatment.
“I met Eric when he was first listed for transplant,” says Helm. “He started exercising with us here in our gym. He was very motivated. He knew that he needed to exercise, he’d exercised before. He would incorporate our program into his everyday life.”
One day Helm wore a University of Waterloo shirt to work and Celentano jumped at the chance to make yet another Waterloo connection. Celentano again couldn’t help but strike up a conversation about their alma mater and inquire about how Helm (who graduated the same year as Celentano, though the two never met) went from a social science degree to a lead physiotherapist at a world-renowned hospital offers lessons for anyone thinking about a career in health.
“I think a Liberal Arts degree is really important because it serves as the basis for the way we view the world,” says Helm who upon leaving Waterloo travelled for a while until she made a realization. “I wanted to go into a profession that would enable me to make an impact.”
Helm went back to school, earning another degree and after working in a few health-related jobs, found her calling after another chance encounter.
“I met a woman who had a double-lung transplant,” Helm explains. “For me it was kind of a realization that this woman looked so great after her transplant because of the therapy she had received.”
Years later, when Celentano arrived at her clinic, her mission was the same as it was back then. “They have a chance at a new life, but it comes at a lot of cost to each patient. They have to exercise with us,” she says. “As a physiotherapist I feel that I can try to bring that out in them, try and have them ‘dig deep’ and find the impetus to keep going in this challenging time.”
In the end, everything Day and Helm do, still leads their patients down the same path, a transplant.
While engaged in physiotherapy and monitoring, Celentano was also waiting anxiously by the phone for a call informing him the transplant network had found a match.
Even that was harrowing. Celentano had two false alarms, including an overnight spent in the hospital prepped for surgery that never came to be, before he learned they’d found a double- lung match and it was his time to go under the knife.
In total, Celentano was in the hospital for three weeks, and made a much faster recovery than expected for someone his age, in large part because Day and Helm ensured he was in optimal shape for the critical procedure.
“I’m six months out now, so I’m not doing too bad in that regard,” Celentano says cheerfully. He’s golfing (poorly, according to someone close to him) and remains effusive in his praise for Helm, Day, and all of the doctors, nurses and specialists at UHN who helped him survive.
Celentano, ever grateful, also insists on giving credit to some folks he never had the chance to meet.
“None of this would have been possible without organ donors,” says Celentano, who now volunteers and regularly shares his story with the lung transplant program at UHN and across Canada. “Please make sure that gets in the story.”