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Breathing Easy: The Gary Klausner Story

Plainview resident going strong 13 years after double lung transplant

 On the surface, Gary Klausner lives the typical life of a Plainview resident. A wife, two kids. Works in sales. It is what’s beneath the surface, however, that truly tells his story.

Gary is 47 years old, and has only had his lungs for 13. He is a double lung transplant recipient, the result of his battle with cystic fibrosis. When he was first diagnosed, life expectancy for those afflicted was 16 years. Now it is 35.

Gary almost became a statistic. Now, he is a survivor.

At age 10, Gary was constantly getting sick, and was soon diagnosed with the disease, where the lungs fill with mucus. The body becomes prone to infection, and proper digestion is a problem. For a while, Gary managed quite well, playing sports in high school and attending college. He eventually married and became a trader on Wall Street.

At age 30, his condition began to catch up to him.

“It wasn’t a slow progressive downfall, it was like falling off a cliff,” Gary said. “One day I went from driving myself from work to L.I. Jewish Hospital and never came out, I was in the ICU unit for 37 days.”

A rare organism was growing inside Gary’s lungs, untreatable by antibiotics. He was on oxygen 24 hours a day. Finally, he was told point blank: he needed a double lung transplant, or he would die.

Adding to the stress, Gary’s wife Robin was pregnant with twins, giving birth while Gary received around the clock care at his parents house in Merrick.

“The afternoon of their bris, I left [the same day], not knowing if I would see [my family] again, and I drove down to North Carolina with my father,” Gary said.

Gary was on the waiting list at Duke University Hospital, and had to move there to await a transplant. Simply getting that far was an accomplishment, as most hospitals would not put him on their list because his chance of survival was poor due to the organism.

And to complicate things further, his newborn son Matthew needed open-heart surgery to repair a valve. Hooked up to oxygen hundreds of miles away, Gary could not be there for his family.

“My wife was in the ICU at Columbia Hospital with [Matthew], my in-laws were with my other twin (Steven), and I was down in North Carolina with my parents,” Gary recounts.

Matthew’s surgery went well, and three days, the call came. A pair of lungs had been found, and Gary was prepped for surgery - a dry run as it’s called, since sometimes damage is found on the organs, rendering it unusable. Fortunately that was not the case here, and Gary underwent 10 hours of surgery.

He wasn’t out of the woods yet. Gary remained hospitalized for 35 days with multiple complications.

“Aside from the transplant, they paralyzed my vocal chords, they broke a feeding tube in my chest, [and] I had to have another operation for acid reflux,” he said.

Finally he was released, and began the arduous process of learning how to breathe properly, and adjusting to a slew of daily medications he will need to take the rest of his life. Not to mention his first days of fatherhood, and Gary feels his strong support system of loved ones helped him recover.

“You can’t go through it by yourself,” Gary said. “You really need to have your loved ones with you to get through this.”

It worked. Six weeks after returning home, Gary ran in a 5K race in Long Beach on Memorial Day, 1999. A couple months later, he competed in a 5 mile run at Jones Beach. Soon, Gary Klausner, transplant survivor, became Gary Klausner, local celebrity.

There was the appearance on the Discovery Channel. He was Man of the Year for the Boomer Esiason Foundation, run by the former New York Jets quarterback whose son has CF. Esiason got Gary onto the show “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy,” where the Klausners got a home makeover, a shopping spree, and a trip to the Bahamas.

Now Gary is an author, with his book Never Say Never: A Life of Challenges available on Amazon.com and Village Cards & Gifts in Morton Village. He will hold a book signing at Book Revue in Huntington on March 16.

Along with cystic fibrosis, he battles diabetes, and has had a bout with skin cancer caused by his medication. While every day is a battle, it is also a blessing, considering what he’s been through in the almost 40 years since he was first diagnosed.

“Life is perfect right now, a complete 360 from where I was 13 years ago,” he says as he exhales.

And when Gary Klausner inhales, it’s with a breath of fresh air, in more ways than one.