After nine years on the sidelines, Tom Fortune is back in net for the Oliver Big Horns, breathing through a pair of someone else’s lungs.
His return to the ice came just in time to take on some former NHLers – Montreal Canadiens alumni who were in town earlier this month.
Fortune began playing hockey as a young boy in Oliver, before eventually playing on the Oliver Big Horns back in the 1980s. He continued playing regularly at the local arena until 10 years ago when he was diagnosed with skleroderma, a debilitating disease that forced him to rely on an oxygen tank for years.
“In August 2009 I was told that I had six months to live,” he said. “I didn’t really believe it. I had three young kids.”
But Fortune continued living for years – and he fought to improve his health to the point where he became eligible to receive a double lung transplant in 2014.
During that period, he took his sons to hockey and watched their games, but was unable to do anything athletic himself. And he has to maintain a certain level of wellness to demonstrate every few months that he was healthy enough to receive an organ (to prevent valuable transplants from getting wasted on patients who aren’t likely to survive long after the surgery).
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After two years of anxiously waiting, he was eventually given the good news. On July 1, 2016 – less than 24 hours after he was notified of the match – Fortune was breathing through a new pair of lungs.
Receiving that message was “Everything we’d been hoping for – for years,” he said. “I got the message at 4 p.m. on Thursday. Drove down to Vancouver, checked into hospital that night and got the transplant next morning.
“Everybody was quite excited. Everybody was there with me.”
He said the surgery went very well, though the recovery took a little longer than he anticipated.
“I’m still recovering,” he said.
Only since last July has he felt strong enough to play hockey.
“I still get short of breath. A lot of it is loss of muscle tone over the eight years. I have a lot of work to do to get my strength back, but it’s coming.”
But even with the new lungs, it was still a challenge to get in shape for a sport as demanding as hockey.
“I thought I would come back from the surgery and feel strong enough to just get out there and start doing it,” he said. “But I had to learn how to skate all over again.”
As any net minder knows, endurance is crucial.
“The number one thing to help was my fitness – you’re thrown into it as a goalie. You don’t get to sit on the bench when you’re tired as a goalie, you have to stay in play.”
Does it feel different breathing through a new set of lungs?
“You do lose a lot of nerve sensation in here because of the way they cut you open.”
Since receiving the transplant, Fortune can also enjoy golfing, skiing and hiking again – “but the biggest thing for me is playing hockey.”
Like many Canadians, hockey is much more than a game to Fortune.
“All my friends are connected to hockey. All the best relationships throughout my life revolve around it. I played in so many different places, always running into people from all over Western Canada that I used to play with.”
For the past few months, Fortune has been playing again with his best friends on a weekly basis, just like the good old days.
“Everything slowed down but we’re still the same group.”
That group of local hockey players – Larry MacFadden, Mike Johnson, Mark Seilder, Jim Stanley – were among those who took on former members of the Montreal Canadiens at the Oliver Arena on Feb. 8.
“I was slow, but that’s alright,” he admits. “You can’t expect to perform really well when you’re playing against guys who did it for their career. But the fact that I got to do it with a group of longtime friends made it a bit more special.”
Fortune underwent his surgery along with several other organ recipients. He would have been able to survive longer without the surgery, albeit tethered to an oxygen tank. But “three or four of those people came out of intensive care to get their transplant so they would have been dead within weeks if it weren’t for an organ donor.”
Fortune encourages everybody to register to be an organ donor if they haven’t already.
“Get on the transplant list – it’s so easy.”
British Columbians can sign up through register.transplant.bc.ca.