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Former Firefighter Rebounds After Lung Cancer

Michael Horat and wife, Viki
Michael Horat and wife, Viki

Michael Horat, 73, retired after 30 years as a firefighter and was happily living part-time in a Southern California desert community where he could golf and stay active through the winter. There was a nationally-known medical center in the vicinity where Michael and his wife, Viki, felt they would get excellent care if ever needed.

“We were wrong,” says Viki. Their less-than-satisfactory experience started when Michael developed what Viki describes as a “little” cough that turned out to be lung cancer. While distressing, the diagnosis wasn’t too surprising considering that Michael often fought fires without equipment to protect his lungs because, early on, it wasn’t required.

After the lung cancer diagnosis, the doctors at the local California medical center recommended that Michael have what was described as a fairly simple operation, where a third of his lung would be removed. During the operation, surgeons discovered the cancer had spread to a lymph node in another part of his lung. The doctors recommended to Viki that Michael’s whole lung be removed. “I wish I had said to close him up,” Viki says, “and that we had returned to Seattle for care.”

The operation proceeded and Michael was left not only missing one whole lung, but also with an opening – a fistula – between the remaining lung area (the bronchial stump) and the cavity left by the removed lung. Saliva began seeping in, causing a continuous cough and life-threatening infection. Michael was in the Intensive Care Unit for 11 days after the surgery and developed heart problems that required he be moved to Cardiac Intensive Care. “I thought I was going to lose him,” remembers Viki.

Upon his release, Michael spent another month at the couple’s desert home receiving intravenous antibiotics before he was strong enough to return to the Northwest. After returning home, Michael’s infection was back, worse than before. It was during this time that Michael was evaluated by Michal Hubka, MD, a skilled thoracic surgeon who practices at Virginia Mason. Dr. Hubka developed a new, more targeted plan for Michael’s care.

The plan included several operations to address the fistula. Dr. Hubka decided to open Michael’s lung cavity to the air to combat the infection and let the fistula close on its own. For almost a year, Michael had the open cavity. Viki, who has a background in health care, cleaned the area three times a day. The infection was gone. The fistula, however, had not closed on its own. Finally, during a complex, eight-hour surgery, Dr. Hubka and James Schlenker, MD, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and tissue specialist, were able to close the fistula. This allowed Michael to heal completely.

Michael has been cancer-free for three years and has regained his ability to be active and even get out on the golf course. “I can’t say enough about the care Michael got at Virginia Mason,” says Viki. “The doctors consulted with one another and came up with a way to address Michael’s specific issues. Now, he’s healthy enough to enjoy life again.”