For most people, the ability to breathe is often taken for granted and happens effortlessly. For Zack Bassin, a 21-year-old native senior at Marist from North Salem, New York, breathing has always been a cause for concern, and one that had become increasingly difficult over time – until recently.
Zack was born with Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease that gets worse with age. Like most people with CF, Zack 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 Zack. “When I was really young, I used to play all kinds of sports–hockey, basketball, lacrosse, soccer… hockey was my favorite,” Zack 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.”
By his senior year of high school, however, things changed even more. Zack 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, he graduated high school and continued on his path as a freshman at Marist.
Zack 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.”
Zack 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 almost two years later, he realized he needed to make a change.
During the spring 2015 during his sophomore year, 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.
“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, Zack 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,” Zack 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 Zack 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. Zack’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. The cancer, which occurs in less than five percent of all transplant patients, was a direct result of his transplant.
Instead of letting his diagnosis get the best of him, Zack 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,” Zack says. Zack 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, Zack is healthy and in remission. This past August 2016, 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, Zack 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, Zack 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.”