A fresh breath of life
The Little family was awakened by a phone call in the early morning hours of May 28.
It was a call that the family had been waiting patiently to get for a little more than two years. A call that would change their lives forever.
"On Memorial Day, we got the call," Naomi Little said. "We went to church on Sunday night and then got the call in the middle of the night at about one in the morning. They told us that if we could get on the road in 10 minutes, then we could drive. If we needed longer than that, we needed to Air Life or Air Link."
Shea Little was about to get a new set of lungs.
Shea — who was the head football coach at Crook County High School from 2005 to 2007, and more recently has coached and served as athletic director at Culver High School — has a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. The disorder prevents his body from producing enough of a protein that protects the lungs and liver from damage.
As a result Shea, a giant of a man, at 6-6, 250 pounds, has struggled most of his life with respiratory problems, including pneumonia, bronchitis, and what was diagnosed as asthma early in his life.
In 2011, Shea was finally correctly diagnosed. At the time, doctors said that he had approximately 50 percent lung capacity. Since then, his lung capacity has steadily diminished to the point that he was put on the lung transplant list in 2016.
Since then, there have been regular trips to the pulmonary center at the University of Washington in Seattle, visits to Bend Memorial Clinic, and weekly IV infusions of slow-drip plasma administered by Shea's wife, Naomi.
Despite the medical problems, Shea had continued his coaching and teaching duties at Culver, while patiently waiting for that all-important call.
Coincidently, the entire Little family happened to be home that Memorial Day weekend, a rare occurrence as their oldest two children are in college.
Shealene, a collegiate volleyball player at Tennessee Tech, was home for a rare visit. As a result, their oldest son, Mack, had returned home from Western Oregon University for a short visit.
Then came the all-important phone call.
"We really wanted the car and wanted all the kids with us, so we just kind of grabbed piles of clothes and shoved it into suitcases and got on the road in 10 minutes," Naomi said.
Later that day, Shea received the new pair of lungs that he had waited on for so long.
"The doctors just keep saying that the lungs are from someone big and young, and they couldn't be more thrilled with the lungs," Naomi said. "Obviously, there are setbacks with a surgery like this, but overall, his lungs are perfect. They keep using the word pristine. So every setback that Shea has had, it hasn't been with the lungs. We are thankful for that."
The entire family remained in Seattle for about a week while Shea was in the Intensive Care Unit.
However, Shea wanted to make sure that the kids didn't miss out on the things that were going on in their lives.
"Shea wanted them to — I don't want to say live their lives — but our daughter had an internship in Tennessee, and our son missed a week of college right before finals," Naomi said. "Shea said you have got to go back and do finals, and then one of our other sons had to graduate."
Cole, a senior at Culver High School, was the class valedictorian and had a speech to give.
So after a week with the family together in Seattle, their four children returned to a more normal routine.
Mack finished his finals last week, while Shealene is currently working on her internship.
Cole and younger brother Brody returned to Culver and completed the school year.
"Cole and Brody are at the house," Naomi said. "I just really would give such an enormous grateful thank you and praise to our community. Cole was supposed to have a graduation party on the Friday before graduation, and they threw together an amazing graduation party. Probably better than I would have put on, and then a bunch of our friends from Prineville and La Grande, (Shea graduated from college at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande) and obviously Culver came to graduation to support Cole because we couldn't be there."
She added that the community has also filled their freezer in Culver with food for Cole and Brody.
"I don't want to say that we would not be making it through this, but the reason our family is doing OK is because people have just surrounded us and helped. It makes it so Shea and I can just focus on him getting better."
Although he is out of ICU, Shea still has a long ways to go before he can hope to resume life as normal.
He has had some minor setbacks, including Arterial Fibrillation, or AFib, a common occurrence in transplant patients, but still a concern.
The human heart has four chambers that pump blood. The two upper chambers are the atria, and the two lower chambers are the ventricles. In a normally functioning heart, the atria pump blood into the ventricles, which then pump that blood to the rest of your body.
AFib is an irregular heartbeat where the atria are beating too fast. As a result, not all of the blood gets pumped from the atria to the ventricles.
In addition, the condition often leads to a rapid, sometimes out of control heartbeat, and potentially both high blood pressure and the possibility of blood clots.
AFib is commonly treated with medication as well as a procedure called cardioversion, an electronic shock to the heart.
In most cases, cardioversion restores the heart to its normal rhythm. However, occasionally it fails to work.
That is the case for Shea. At last report, he has had AFib for several days.
"The short answer is that it is under control," Naomi said. "But his heartrate goes a little too high sometimes, and they're trying to get the right concoction of drugs to help it either flip back into sinus rhythm, or at least control the rate a little bit better, but it's controlled."
She added that if the doctors can't get the heart back into normal rhythm in the next three or four weeks with medication, then they may do a second cardioversion either in late June or early July.
However, she was quick to say that things are going well, despite the minor setback.
"He's making big strides," she said. "Just today, (last Thursday) for the first time, he walked a little bit without a walker. The physical therapist still held him, but he's making big gains with that."
Recovering from an operation as serious as a lung transplant is a lengthy process.
The family is required to stay in Seattle as close to the hospital as possible for a minimum of three months, possibly longer.
That has led to some financial hardships for the family, something that friends have tried to help alleviate by starting a GoFundMe account for the Littles.
"Well, I know I'm embarrassed," Naomi said. "We want people to know that we didn't ask for help. We didn't even know that they were doing the GoFundMe. Obviously, we have the financial, transplant housing is $3,000 a month and it's not covered by insurance. And we don't know how many months we are going to be here. We are hoping three, but it just depends on how he does."
The Littles' plan is for both Shea and Naomi to return to teach in Culver, however, they don't know when that might happen.
"We don't know what the future holds, and that's what we've told our school district," Naomi said. "The ultimate goal is for he and I to go back to work at Culver. When that's going to be, we don't know. They have said that even if we get past the Family and Medical Leave Act guidelines, they want us back and not to worry about our jobs. The Culver School District and Brad Kudlac (high school principal) and Stefanie Garber (superintendent) have been supportive through all of this."
Still, that could be a long ways in the future. There is still ant-rejection medication that needs to be leveled out as well as keeping control of the AFib, and any other setbacks that might occur. However, Naomi noted that both she and Shea are thinking positive, and that overall, things are going well for the family and especially Shea.
"I'm just really grateful, and you know tired, but I'm great," she said. "I'm thankful for the way God has worked this out and the timing, and I'm thankful for all the support that we have received. I don't really know what Shea would want me to say. He's so upbeat, and so private."
Naomi also sent a message from Shea.
"He said, we both are feeling like we don't know how we would have done this without our community and our friends surrounding us," she said. "The community has rallied and supported us and our family, and that has already made it a smooth transition."
She added that there is one final word from Shea that he wanted to make sure everyone knows. She said that through all of his physical problems, Shea has adopted a catch phrase, and he wanted to make sure that he gets that message out.
"It's all good," he said.
If you would like to help the Little family or keep up with updates about how Shea's recovery is going, his GoFundMe account is at https://www.gofundme.com/5mojhnc.