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New Lungs Present New Hardships for Zack Bassin

For most people, the ability to breathe is often taken for granted and happens effortlessly. For Zack Bassin, a 21-year-old native of North Salem, NY, breathing has always been a cause for concern, and one that had become increasingly difficult over time – until recently.

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Courtesy of Emily Crowley

Bassin was born with Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease that gets worse with age. Like most people with CF, Bassin needed a lung transplant – and got it. As a result of the transplant, however, he ended up with a cancer called Post-Transplant Lymphoma right before his junior year of college.

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, “Cystic Fibrosis is a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time” due to a “thick, buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs.”

This diagnosis is all too familiar to Bassin.

“When I was really young, I used to play all kinds of sports- hockey, basketball, lacrosse, soccer… hockey was my favorite,” Bassin says. “As I got older, though, around 8th grade, was when I really had to stop playing sports. That was the worst thing for me.”

Bassin explains that, while he had to quit doing what he loved for the sake of his breathing, his condition hadn’t yet worsened to the point that it one day would. He says he could still do “normal” things, but running around became more difficult.

By his senior year of high school, however, things changed. Bassin says, “I had to start using oxygen all the time, and that’s when we decided I needed to have a lung transplant at some point in the near future.” Although this was an unnerving realization for Bassin, he graduated high school and continued on his path as a freshman at Marist College.

Bassin began his freshman year at a new school, surrounded by new people, with physical indicators of his disease attached to him at all times. Because he had such trouble breathing, he wore an oxygen cannula on his nose during all hours of the day. Instead of walking to class, he zipped around campus on a motorized scooter, because he says, “walking just became too much for me. I couldn’t walk far at all.”

Although he feels that these things made him stick out among his peers, he quickly made a tight-knit group of friends who never caused him to feel different or separate from them. 

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Zack and his friends during his sophomore year at Marist; courtesy of Zack

While Bassin says that he, “used to laugh at some of the things people said,” regarding his cannula or scooter, he recognizes his true friends: the group of students that has stayed by his side from freshman year until now.

“I think what really stood [my friend group] apart from the rest of the people is that, when I first met them, they acted like I was completely normal. They never even asked any questions about it,” he says.

These friends stayed by Bassin’s side even during the spring of 2015 during his sophomore year, when he made the decision to transfer out of Marist to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in the upcoming semester, in hopes of getting his new lungs more quickly than he would in New York.

Bassin was put on the waiting list for new lungs at Manhattan’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital within the first three days of his arrival at Marist. When he found himself still on that list two years later, he realized he needed to make a change.

“After that semester, I decided I was going to move down to North Carolina with my mom, because Duke has probably the biggest lung transplant program in the country,” he says. “They do around 120 transplants per year compared to Columbia who does about 40.”

He continues, “We didn’t know how long it would take but we figured it would be a lot faster.”

Sure enough, Bassin and his mother moved to North Carolina on May 16, 2015 and exactly one month later on June 16, he received the transplant. While they were both “relieved and happy” that he was given the opportunity to breathe through new, healthy lungs, the following weeks proved to be more difficult than anticipated.

“In each day and hour after the transplant, you want everything to go perfectly because in the immediate aftermath, that’s the biggest chance for things to happen that could mess you up long-term. You just worry about every little thing,” Bassin explains.

Immediately post-surgery, everything seemed to be going well. After a few days, though, what doctors thought should have been a week in the hospital, turned into three weeks. This setback had Bassin feeling low, but he ultimately pulled through and was able to begin school at UNC as planned, during the spring 2016 semester.

Fast forward to March of that semester, almost a year after the transplant. Bassin’s new lungs were doing their job and his breathing had improved significantly. Things took an unexpected turn for the worse, however, when he was diagnosed with Post-Transplant Lymphoma just two months into his first semester at UNC. Bassin explains that the cancer was a direct result of his transplant, and that it occurs in less than five percent of all transplant recipients.  

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Zack’s medications; courtesy of Emily Crowley

Instead of letting his diagnosis get the best of him, Bassin weighed out his options for treatment and continuing his schooling, and did what was realistic.

“I didn’t really want to live down there [in North Carolina] by myself and go through it alone. My mom moved back to New York three months after my transplant, so there was really no option,” Bassin says.

At this point, Bassin decided to withdraw from UNC and head back to New York, where he would undergo cancer treatment at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

As of July 2016, Bassin is healthy and in remission. This past August, he re-enrolled at Marist and is enjoying his first semester back at the school he loves with the friends he made during his freshman year. He is making the most of his first “healthy” semester at college, but feels that college isn’t necessarily the place for him.

“One thing I can’t do which is pretty prominent in college is drink [alcohol]. Recently I was told I can have one beer a month, but that doesn’t do much,” he mentions. “I have great friends, but I never really thought [college] would be the best place for me just because it’s a time where everyone is having as much fun as possible, making mistakes and growing up.”

Instead, Bassin looks forward to the future. As a sports communication major with a business minor, he aspires to work in sports marketing one day, and has dreams of interning with the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour in Florida. One day down the line, he hopes to become a public speaker, so that he can give back to people going through situations similar to his. He is also considering authoring a book on the topic.

For now, Bassin is counting his blessings and is grateful for his good health, but he understands that that has the potential to change.

“I try not to worry that things are going to come up again. With the type of cancer and the type of treatment I had, the chances of me getting cancer again are pretty low,” he explains. “But there are always complications that can happen with the lungs too because transplant is a very fragile thing.”

 

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