Tommy Thomas' Story
“I told the doctors, ‘I want to come back here. You guys are the best.'"
Tommy Thomas’ symptoms started with a “bad cold” in December 2009. He was coughing up a dry, yellow mucus, and he became worried when the cough did not go away after several months.
In April 2010, Tommy visited his ear, nose and throat doctor in Georgia who diagnosed pneumonia. After being treated for pneumonia, Tommy developed bronchitis. The cough and a cycle of respiratory infections continued for the next several months.
By the summer of 2010, the cough was still getting worse, so Tommy visited a pulmonologist, also in Georgia. He underwent a bronchoscopy, where the doctor took a culture of the mucus, or sputum, in his lungs.
Tommy was diagnosed with a strain of Nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) called Mycobacterium abscessus. How and why people become infected with NTM is not clear. The germs, which are related to the tuberculosis germ, are found easily in water and soil, but they do not affect most people.
Tommy, who works as a social worker at the same hospital where he was being treated, asked the doctor, “What would you tell your husband if he was diagnosed with this?”
“She said, ‘We would go to National Jewish Health in Denver.’ I said, well that’s what I want to do,” Tommy recalls.
In March 2011, Tommy came to Denver for a two-week appointment in the Adult Day Unit at National Jewish Health. Charles L. Daley, MD, Chief of the Division of Mycobacterial and Respiratory Infections, led his care.
Dr. Daley confirmed that Tommy had M. abscessus, and recommended eight weeks of infusion treatments with powerful antibiotics, followed by lung resection surgery to remove the diseased part of the lung.
“Dr. Daley told me that this is a very serious disease and that very little is known about it,” says Tommy. But, Dr. Daley also gave him hope. “He said that we caught it early enough that we can keep it in remission.”
Dr. Daley also collaborated with John D. Mitchell, MD, who is the Chief of Thoracic Surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital. Dr. Mitchell determined that Tommy was a candidate for surgery.
“Dr. Mitchell said that there was a spot the size of a half dollar on the upper-left lobe of my lung,” says Tommy. “I told the doctors, ‘I want to come back here. You guys are the best.’”
Tommy returned to Denver in September 2011 for the surgery. Dr. Mitchell removed a section of Tommy’s lung, and within days, he was able to check out of the hospital.
Just a few months later, Tommy’s life is back to normal. He especially enjoys time with his family, which includes three grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Tommy feels lucky that the infection was caught early and that the treatments have worked. While he continues to take antibiotics to keep the M. abscessus in remission, his cough has disappeared. Tommy’s doctors in Georgia are coordinating his care with Dr. Daley.
“I was impressed that patients at National Jewish Health came from all over the world for treatment, and all of the doctors and nurses went the extra mile to take care of me,” says Tommy. “Dr. Daley was exceptional; I can’t praise him enough.”