Couple prepares for lung transplant, financial strains and move

by Jordan Green

Lee Wallace sat on a stool at the edge of the stage at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Sunday night, intently watching Ronnie Levels & his Genius Band. He looked like a fan with the best seat in the house about to get on stage for a guest spot. Which he was.

Followed by Renee Mendoza Haran of Filthybird, Wallace trekked onto the stage for the last song, oxygen tube trailing behind.

“I have so many friends who are ludicrously talented,” Wallace told the audience, “and you’re going to get to see some of them tonight.”

Then he thanked Leslie Cantu, his wife, noting her steadfast devotion to him since he was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis three years ago.

“Leslie, I want you to know that every time you walk away from me in a room, I’m looking right at your butt,” he told her.

Then the band blasted out the chords of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends” and Lee Wallace spread his arms in a gesture of gratitude, smiled big and sang in a frail, reedy tenor that filled the room.

The excitement of the event and relishing the opportunity to talk with all of his friends sustained Wallace through the eight-hour event, which he described as a “whirlwind,” but on Monday he said, “It’s surely going to take me three days to recover.”

Lee and Leslie are headed to Pittsburgh on Oct. 25 to await a lung transplant. They know it’s a risky procedure.

“Lung transplants are still the black sheep of the transplant family,” Lee said during an interview at Tate Street Coffee. “It’s a harder procedure than a heart transplant or a liver transplant or a kidney transplant, and they aren’t as likely to be successful. About half of patients die within one year. The rule of thumb is, if you make it one year, you make it five. If you make it five, you’ll make it 10. After that, it’s wide open. The longest anyone has lived after a lung transplant is 21 years.”

Considering that lungs are continuously exposed to outside elements, rejection is a significant challenge. After the transplant, they’ll have to be vigilant about cleanliness and Lee noted ruefully that he’ll have to “stay out of rock and roll clubs and sold-out movie theaters.” They’ll have to take some precautions with their four beloved pets, and make sure the cats don’t lie on their bed pillows.

Lee said initially he had some doubts about whether he wanted to get the transplant, but he met with some people who had undergone the procedure. Ultimately, it was a chance he had to take because it could extend his life, and it will almost certainly enhance the quality of his life.

“My goals are pretty modest,” Lee said. “It would be nice to go to the grocery store, do all the shopping and make it back to the car alive.”

Also, he looks forward to singing again.

One song was the extent of what his old lungs would allow him on Sunday night.

“I was on four liters of oxygen and could only manager one four-minute pop song,” Lee said. “I look forward to daily dog walks and hiking.”

The procedure is expected to cost anywhere between $500,000 to a $1 million, which will be covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield Lee said. Afterwards, the anti-rejection drugs are expected to run $2,500 per month, part of which will be covered by the insurance company and part of which will come out of pocket.

Considering that the closest hospital equipped to perform the procedure is located in Pittsburgh, they have to move there and wait for a set of donor lungs to become available. The cost of living is up to them. They don’t know exactly how much that will cost, but Lee said $30,000 has been suggested as a starting point.

The benefit at the Blind Tiger raised $4,500. A portion of the proceeds from a roller derby double-header at Simkins Pavilion at Barber Park on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. will go towards the fund.

The way the Greensboro music community comes together for musicians undergoing health care crises is heartwarming, but the experience also angers Lee and Leslie.

Leslie recalled that when a specialist at Duke University Hospital diagnosed Lee, a financial advisor handed them a brochure on fundraising.

“I was pissed,” Leslie said. “Why would we have to worry about this? It’s added stress and added pressure on top of the condition itself.”

Lee listened quietly, and then spoke up when Leslie was finished. “Can I say something? Leslie and I are really, really lucky. She’s got a good job that provided us with insurance. We have good and talented friends who jumped at the chance to help us. Almost nobody else who is going through this has that.

“We live in a really affluent country that can afford to bomb the s— out of other countries and bribe third-world dictators,” he continued, “and most people can’t afford healthcare here.”

Leslie was laid off from American Express recently when the company closed its campus near Piedmont Triad International Airport. The couple is currently living off her severance. Come April, they’ll no longer have health insurance.

“It was good timing in a way because I needed to spend the time with Lee,” she said. “But at some point I’m going to have to find another job so that I can have health insurance. It’s been a tough year. Hopefully, the next one will be better.”