Less than a year ago, Tim Koelble had surgery to replace both of his lungs. The 66-year-old sportswriter for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail was struggling to breathe with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an inflammatory lung disease.
He called the decision to undergo a transplant "the best move I ever made." On Saturday, it helped him make another move he never expected to make — walking three miles alongside fellow recipients of donated organs.
"It's an honor to be able to do this," said Koelble, whose six months of preparations included walking 25 miles in a week while in Baltimore for an Orioles homestand with his brother. "I set my mind on it."
Hundreds of organ recipients, along with their friends, family, doctors and nurses, ran and walked for the Living Legacy Foundation's Donate Life Family Fun Run around the Camden Yards Sports Complex on Saturday. Among them were more than two dozen patients who received heart or lung transplants at the University of Maryland Medical Center, including Koelble, who are a part of a support group that is emphasizing the importance of exercise in organ transplant recovery.
Ten of those people are part of a study using Fitbit fitness trackers to explore how easily transplant patients can integrate exercise in their recovery and how it affects their progress in the long run. Their doctors are also testing the waters of telemedicine, using the Fitbit data to keep track of patients' progress from afar.
"Some patients have to travel one or two hours" to see their doctors in Baltimore, said Dr. June Kim, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at the medical center. "Regular follow-up is important."
The study involves giving patients the Fitbits and spirometry devices used to measure lung capacity and strength, and then checking in with them through virtual clinic visits. The study started in January and is scheduled to wrap up in December.
Jeff Stout, a 62-year-old Pasadena resident, and Sue Dover, a 68-year-old from Towson, have been leading the group of Fitbit users since June. They keep track of their fellow patients' progress and urge them on, while also using some friendly competition as motivation.
Dover, who has pulmonary fibrosis, sets the pace. She walks 10 to 15 miles every day on a treadmill and around the Shops at Kenilworth, so Saturday's walk was a piece of cake.
She received a new left lung two years ago Sept. 27, and she said it benefits from the exercise.
"It keeps your lung moving," she said.
For many of the support group's members, the Donate Life walk is a yearly routine.
"This is my third year here," said Joelma Redfern, a 40-year-old mother of two who underwent a transplant at 37. "I feel the best" now of the past three years.
The group meets on the first Friday of every month to check in with one another and share tips on recovery.
"It makes a big difference for them to be able to talk to each other," said Dr. Irina Timofte, another pulmonologist and critical care specialist at the center. "A lung transplant is not easy."
George Phillips, a 53-year-old who lives in Arbutus, said some days are easier than others as he aims to walk between 3 and 3½ miles. But he considers himself "one of the lucky ones," receiving a new lung three years ago Aug. 10 after suffering with fibrosis.
"I still can't walk uphill because I get short of breath," he said. "All in all, I'm here."
Stout had ambitions of doing the 5-kilometer walk Saturday. Along with working out his new lung, his regimen includes walking, crunches and other exercises, and it has helped him lose 14 pounds. But he missed the start, and instead was caught in a crowd doing a shorter 1-kilometer jaunt.
No matter, he said. "I'll make it up tomorrow."