DALLAS – After the numerous life-threatening challenges he’s experienced, Neil Herskowitz can truly appreciate some of the most mundane things in life.
Things like taking a simple shower. Or being stuck in rush-hour traffic.
As a double lung transplant recipient following a life-long battle with cystic fibrosis, Herskowitz recalls the times when taking a shower was a major task. Or when being able to get behind the wheel of a car was not a part of his daily routine.
“I think, at least in my experience, every day I wake up and even when I can take a shower without being out of breath, that’s a win,” Herskowitz said. “So if I’m sitting in traffic or I spill my coffee all over myself, I don’t really care. It doesn’t bother me. Nobody wants to sit in traffic. But I usually think that, ‘Man, this is pretty cool that I’m even here, that I’m driving a car.'”
For nearly two years, Herskowitz had to carry a portable oxygen tank to his job – he’s the assistant equipment manager for the Dallas Mavericks – just so he could breathe. It was his mode of survival, his fight against the inherited life-threatening disorder that caused havoc in his life.
“I had a big oxygen tank at home that looked like a big trash can, and I had that portable one I would fill up and basically connect off of the big one,” Herskowitz said. “For a lot of reasons it was not an ideal situation.
“It wasn’t very user-friendly, it was bulky, it was hard to move around and it only lasted like six hours. So it seemed like by the time I could make it down to (American Airlines Center) and be there for a little bit, I had to kind of start getting back home because the oxygen was going to run out.”
The double lung transplant Herskowitz underwent on October 11, 2015 changed all that and altered his life for the better.
These days, Herskowitz has moved out of his parents’ North Dallas home and has his own apartment. He’s also driving his own car without any repercussions, whereas beforehand he was dependent on others to get him from Point A to B.
“When Neil’s lungs started to have problems from his mid- and late-20s, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go through it, because he thought he was going to be a burden to people,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “There were obviously a lot of people both in our organization and in his private life that appealed to him that that was absolutely not the case, and that your life was something that was worth fighting for.”
“When he decided to get on a list for a transplant it was a big step, and then there became an available lung and he went through the whole thing. It was painful, but he had a lot of support from friends and family, and of course the Mavericks’ organization, and he is as healthy as I’ve ever seen him.”
Acting as their lucky charm, the Mavs honored Herskowitz earlier this month by sending him to New York as one of their representatives at the NBA Draft Lottery. While in the Big Apple, Herskowitz got to mingle with some of the NBA’s big-wigs, and even did an interview on national TV.
Mavs' assistant equipment manager reps team in lottery
Neil Herskowitz tells Cassidy Hubbarth his inspirational story of life with cystic fibrosis and shares how proud he is to represent the Mavericks organization in New York.
Afterwards, Herskowitz hung around New York for a few days, visiting — among other things — a couple of art museums and the New York Public Library.
“I definitely think it was cool that I was there in the first place because without the double lung transplant, none of that happens and you and I aren’t having this conversation right now,” Herskowitz said. “It’s easy to get caught up in that moment and reflect, but to me you break it down and you think of all the little things along the way.”
“The fact that I could get on an airplane and didn’t have to bring an oxygen tank, the fact that I could walk around in New York and go down the subway and go up a bunch of stairs and walk to Central Park. There’s no way in hell I would have been doing any of that stuff before the transplant.”
No one employed by the Mavs has worked closer with Herskowitz during his medical journey than Al Whitley. As the Mavs’ equipment manager, Whitley has painfully seen Herskowitz struggle just to simply make it through the day.
“For the last three or four years he was basically a skeleton of himself,’’ Whitley said. “He was deteriorating away and his health was getting worse and worse, and it was really hard to watch and be around him, especially as close as we’ve been and worked together for over 10-15 years.
“When he decided that he was actually going to do the double lung transplant, the progress he’s made since, he’s a completely different person. He went from maybe having weeks to months to live, to he’s a completely new and energized person, he’s gained his weight back, he’s gained his personality, and his sense of humor has come back.”
Herskowitz, 32, recalls the dark days when his weight dipped from 150 to 100 pounds. He remembers the nine-hour double lung transplant surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and the three-week stay in the hospital following the surgery.
Regretfully, Herskowitz also recalls wanting to give up on life.
“There was a point when all I could really do was text and watch TV,” Herskowitz said. “I was out breath. But the fact that I can now walk into a coffee shop and sit down and get some coffee and walk out, that’s pretty cool to me. Actually, that’s very cool to me.”
Carlisle noted how things shifted from good to bad to worse, and back to good again, for Herskowitz over the years.
“When I first got here in 2008 he was the full-time assistant equipment manager and he was doing full duties,” Carlisle said. “As time wore on in the next couple of years he was getting weaker and at a certain point was unable to keep going, and that’s where he had doubts about whether he wanted to go on. And this was something that really hit all of us at the Mavs’ organization in such a deep way because we have such great love for this kid and we know that it’s always been a struggle at some level. We just didn’t want to lose him.”
“He went through a very tough period before deciding to get the transplant. But to see him now and see how healthy he is and how vivacious and enthusiastic every single day is, it’s an amazing story and we’re all so proud.”
One of Herskowitz’s two brothers, Richie, died in 2007 at the age of 17 of complications from cystic fibrosis.
“My brother and I were both born with (cystic fibrosis),” Herskowitz said. “When he was five years old is when he had his (double lung) transplant and he did reasonably well for a while. But when he got older and when he hit the teenage years just with puberty – just like with anyone with all the changes that your body makes — then he started to struggle and he actually had a hard time getting around.”
“He didn’t grow, he was about 65 pounds when he was 17 years old and he was on a scooter, and he needed oxygen and he needed dialysis. Even though he was very sharp and very astute mentally, he basically could do very, very little physically.”
Carlisle said folks should be inspired by the way Herskowitz has overcome his many medical battles.
“We all go through what we perceive to be hard times and difficult periods, but when you see a situation like Neil’s and what he’s going through and the amount of pain, the amount of apprehension and doubts (he’s experienced), it’s a pretty good reset button,” Carlisle said. “The pretty particular small problems that we’re all having on a day-to-day basis, this gets you reset the right way.”
“It’s going to make people cry. I cried many times during this whole thing over the last few years.”
Whitley admires the fight Herskowitz has fought, the way he cheated death and has become a beacon of life to those who know him and are familiar with his medical history.
“He’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever been around in my life,” Whitley said. “His fight and determination every day just to get through the day was just incredible to watch and it was hard to watch at times, but he never gave up and he never complained, and he kept on fighting through it.
“I’ve always considered him like my little brother. He’s always come to me for advice — and vice versa — I’ve looked to him for advice all the time as well. It was extremely tough to watch him go through all the heartache and the pain and the suffering, and him deteriorating.”
Herskowitz certainly shed more than his share of tears during his ordeal. But after taking a deep emotional and physical downturn in 2012, he’s now vibrant, he’s back up to 150 pounds, and says he’s “the healthiest” he’s ever been.
“I’ve got recycled parts, certified pre-owned, as I like to joke sometimes,” Herskowitz said. “It’s a real gift.”
The precious gift of life that Neil Herskowitz doesn’t take for granted. A precious gift that he frequently recalls whenever he takes a shower, or is stuck in rush-hour traffic.
About Southwest Transplant Alliance:
For more than 40 years, STA has been saving lives by recovering donated organs for individuals awaiting a lifesaving transplant. Recently, STA began recovering eyes and tissue to improve lives. STA is among the largest of 58 federally designated, non-profit organ procurement organizations (OPOs). Founded in 1974, STA has facilitated more than 23,000 organs for recovery and enhanced the lives of tens of thousands of people. STA is a member of the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) and is accredited by the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO). The organization serves communities in North Texas, Beaumont, Bryan/College Station, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Galveston, Midland/Odessa, Temple, Wichita Falls and Tyler. For more information, go to www.organ.org.
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