Concert tries to help after Otsego vet needs a double-lung transplant

By: 
Nicklas Grifhorst

Recovering from a double-lung transplant has its perks—life, breathing.
To help with the downsides—significant medical bills, among several—there will be a benefit concert Friday, June 15, at 6 p.m. at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Allegan, at 110 Chestnut St.
Donations will be collected to help Steven Wehner pay the remaining medical bills from his April 7 double-lung transplant. The event will will include music from three bands: Mitch Wooster; The Clearwater Burza Project; and Strum, Dumb and Dumber. There will also be a silent auction with donated goods and services from local business and individuals. The concert is free, but there is a suggested minimum donation of $10.
Wehner, who served in the U.S. Air Force, underwent a lifesaving double lung transplant after being hospitalized for more than a month at the University of Michigan hospital. His lung problems began during his service and doctors speculate the issues came from him being around the burn pits at the bases common in both Afghanistan and Iraq where he served.
He said he was a freshman at Otsego High School when 9/11 happened, and he decided then that he would eventually enlist.
“After that I always felt like I wanted to go serve and do my part in the war,” Wehner said.
After graduating in 2004, Wehner spent one year in college before joining the Air Force. His first deployment was in Iraq at the Balad air base where he served as a munitions specialist. Wehner first noticed breathing issues after his time at Balad when he returned to the United States and was stationed in Utah.
Wehner originally attributed his troubles to the high altitude.
“It takes a couple weeks to adjust to the altitude and I just never seemed to,” Wehner said.
But, soon Wehner feared it could be something more and he sought medical advice.
“I went to the doctor and said something doesn’t seem right,” Wehner said, “I’m still having trouble breathing.”
Wehner was sent to the pulmonologist who ran several tests to determine the extent of his lung issues. But, in October 2010, he was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan and with no diagnosis from a doctor, at that point he was cleared to go.
It was two more years before a biopsy would reveal the extent of his lung disease and in 2012 Wehner was medically discharged from the Air Force.
During the next six years, things only got worse for Wehner and shortly after last Thanksgiving he had respiratory failure and was sent by ambulance to the hospital. He needed a double lung transplant.
After struggling to breath with oxygen assistance at home he was admitted to U of M’s hospital in early March. He was put on high flow oxygen. At the time, his lungs could take in just 17 percent of the air they normally could.
Wehner stayed in the hospital for over a month before the transplant. Since then he has undergone five procedures in a month-and-a-half to make sure everything was stable and fix any issues.
Wehner’s stepfather Scott Chenard, Wehner’s mother Donna and Wehner’s wife Flo were all with him throughout the process.
Chenard said, “We were very pleased with how U of M handled it; that is an awesome hospital.”
Now it’s time for the road to recovery for Wehner, which may be the hardest part. He said the survival rate from a double-lung transplant can be bleak. “It’s difficult because there is always a high risk of infection and rejection,” Wehner said, “As far as statistics go for lung transplants it’s not great.”
His stepdad says Wehner has always had a passion for motocross and is itching to get back on a bike, something Wehner’s mother objects to.
If everything goes how the doctors expect, he will be back to living as normal a life as possible within nine months. Regardless, for the rest of his life, Wehner will be taking medication to prevent his body from rejecting the organs.
The cost of the operation is what Wehner and his family are concerned with at the moment and that is the reason for the benefit concert. Wehner’s insurance would only cover 80 percent of the near $2 million medical bill. They know this event won’t pay for all of what they need, but it’s a start.
As for the burn pits the doctors speculated as the cause for Wehner’s problems, the government had denied that they had any effect on anyone until a February 2018 ruling by a judge said otherwise.
“To me it is mind boggling that they deny it had no effect whatsoever,” said Chenard.
As for Wehner, he is living in Otsego and hopes to graduate from Western Michigan University by the end of the year with a nursing degree. He says even with the issues it has caused, he does not regret serving in the Air Force.
“I’m still happy that I served,” said Wehner. “I don’t regret it at all, I’d do it all over again.”
Contact Nicklas Grifhorst at (269) 673-5534.
 

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