Transplant, religion help 26-year-old breathe easier

 With 15 percent lung capacity, Clay Naylor carried an oxygen tank on his back to ease his laboured breathing. He could barely move and often spat up blood.

Then came the double-lung transplant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Eight months of waiting and praying had paid off.

At midnight, nurses shaved his body and filled him with intravenous fluid. Then the 25- year-old talked with his family.

“If I don’t see you in a few hours, I’ll see you in eternity,” he told them before the seven-hour operation.

About 40 relatives and friends waited in the wings. They sang. They prayed. And when it was over, Naylor said, the doctor informed them of the surgery’s success. The lungs the physician had removed were “bleeding and gooey, like a piece of cut-up meat,” Naylor said.

That was in 2008. In May, the Norcross, Ga., native, now 26, marked the one-year anniversary with his new lungs. It was a year filled with bouts of pneumonia and a medically induced coma, but one that reinforced his faith in God and renewed his love for life.

“I take nothing for granted,” Naylor said recently. “I try to live every day to the fullest.”

Naylor’s health problems stem from cystic fibrosis, a genetic respiratory disease that batters the lungs and pancreas and worsens with age, often killing its carrier before age 40.

Doctors diagnosed Naylor with the disease at age 4 and initially gave him 14 years to live. They advised the young man to exercise to clear his lungs of mucus and get the airflow going.

“Your lungs fill up with so much phlegm, it basically strangles you,” he said. “Some kids can get very sick and go down very quickly. So much of it depends on their lifestyle.”

So Naylor led an active life growing up in Norcross. He fished, hiked, rode horses and played baseball. But in ninth grade at the disease started getting the best of him.With just 60 percent lung capacity, Naylor couldn’t keep pace with fellow baseball players.

By the time he graduated from North Georgia College in Dahlonega, Ga., in 2006, Naylor’s lung capacity had plunged to 20 percent. Even so, during and after college, Naylor led Bible study groups, counseling students about life, relationships and “their walk with God.”

“I like college students because they’re at a crossroads,” he said. “They want to know what they should live their life for. I’m able to encourage them. God has given me a platform.”

One of his students was Matthew Stephenson, now 22. Stephenson said Naylor would lead Bible studies occasionally strapped to an oxygen tank.

“Even though his lung function was like 30 percent, he wasn’t soliciting for sympathy,” Stephenson said. “His perseverance through suffering and his faith has been an amazing witness to me.”

Naylor’s suffering continued months after his surgery. Despite his new lungs, he had constant congestion, fevers and vomiting that made him weak. He took painkillers and sleeping pills that made him hallucinate. For almost a month, he was put in a medically induced coma.

“I closed my eyes, and the next memory I had was a month later,” he said. “It took me forever to learn how to walk again.”

These days, Naylor said he continues to talk to students about his faith,”just with more passion and zeal.” He also has started writing a book, loosely titled “God and Our Suffering.”

“I want to write something that will teach people to find their joy, their strength, their peace and even their purpose in God through their suffering,” he said. He hopes to finish within the next year.

Naylor also travels — a lot. Friends and family call him “pilgrim,” a fitting moniker. Always toting a Bible, sleeping bag and pillow, Naylor lives in three cities, spending two or three days each week in Norcross, Dahlonega and Hayesville, N.C.

His journeys also continue to take him afar. Four years ago in Puerto Rico, he helped rebuild houses, lay shingles and paint road curbs. Three years ago in Ireland, he taught the Bible to children and teens. And recently he set out on a three-week trip to Scotland and Ireland that will include some mission work and sightseeing.

Dr. Daniel Caplan, pediatric director of the Emory University Cystic Fibrosis Centre, diagnosed the disease and treated Naylor up until age 18. He marvels at Naylor’s fighting spirit.

“He always tried to take care of himself and kept going. That was his message to others,” Caplan said. “He’s an inspiration to so many people