Gillette Diesel Mechanic Hoping To Get On List For Rare Heart-Lung Transplant

Gillette's Justin Rushing doesn’t look like a guy who needs a heart and lung transplant. The 36-year-old, who loves hunting and his family, spends his days working as a diesel mechanic. But he's running out of time and working to get on the list.

JK
Jen Kocher

February 10, 20247 min read

Justin Rushing and wife Tonya are preparing and hoping for a rare double heart-lung transplant for Justin.
Justin Rushing and wife Tonya are preparing and hoping for a rare double heart-lung transplant for Justin. (Courtesy Photo)

GILLETTE — It’s a lot to digest. The risks. The warnings. All the life changes. But at the same time, Justin Rushing doesn’t really have a choice.

He needs a new heart and lungs. Doing nothing isn’t an option.

With a shrug and wry smile, the Gillette 36-year-old doesn’t look like a guy with a faulty heart. In fact, he spends his days answering service calls for Kissack Water and Oil Service in Gillette where he works as a diesel mechanic.

He definitely gets winded easily and has trouble breathing in the morning, Justin admitted, but his bosses are patient because they appreciate how hard he works.

He also doesn’t make a big deal about what he can’t do, nor does he want any sympathy. As he says, “It is what is.” And he’s used to it.

Sitting side-by-side at a local Starbucks on Sunday, Rushing and his wife Tonya tick off a two-page laundry list of all the various surgeries and other procedures Rushing’s been through in his relatively short life, dating back to the day after he was born when his skin started turning black as he cried.

After being life-flighted to Seattle Children’s Hospital, it was determined that Rushing was born with a rare heart condition called dextrocardia. In simple terms, this means his heart is on the wrong side of his chest and facing backwards.

The condition led to a myriad of complications and major surgeries throughout his life, including his first open heart surgery at 18 months where he had a shunt inserted into his heart. Over the years, he’s had a handful of other open-heart surgeries, including an aortic valve transplant and having a pacemaker inserted.

Normal Life

“I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals,” Justin told Cowboy State Daily, but he didn’t — and doesn’t — let it dictate the quality of his life.

He grew up a Navy brat living on various bases throughout the United States, primarily in the south, with parents who didn’t baby him and let him live a relatively normal life. Though he couldn’t play sports or ultimately join the military as he would have liked, he played outside with other kids and went surfing and to the beach.

As an adult, he moved to Gillette after high school and has continued to live an active life hunting, hiking and exploring outdoors.

That said, despite his can-do attitude, his health nonetheless continues to dictate his life.

Last fall, Rushing spent several nail-biting days in Denver after once again being life-flighted because of what doctors believed was a blood infection. It was determined then that his heart valve continues to deteriorate, which directly impacts his lungs. Hence the need for a transplant.

Justin and Tonya Rushing
Justin and Tonya Rushing (Courtesy Photos)

Waiting Game

Rushing is trying to get on a donor list for a rare heart-lung transplant. The first step is getting healthy enough to even apply. This means amping up his vaccinations, including getting his first COVID-19 vaccine, as well as filling all the cavities in his teeth.

The procedure, which has been done since the early 1980s, continue to improve with five-year survival rates of 60% and higher, according to Stanford Health Care, which is one of the handful of hospitals who perform the operation.

He’s been told that there are only about 30 such transplant operations done in the country each year.

Rushing is attempting to have his surgery done at the University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City, assuming the pulmonary and heart teams feel he’s a viable patient for the operation.

Assuming the doctors give the greenlight, Rushing will have to live in Salt Lake City for at least six months before he can receive the organs, and will be a priority given his need. Once on the list, he may have to wait anywhere from one day or many years, he’s been told, before organs are available.

This means Rushing will have to take a leave of absence from his job and move to Utah by himself while leaving Tonya, an OR nurse, and his two teenage stepchildren home in Gillette. After the operation, he will have to remain in Utah for at least up to a year with two nurses at his side — Tonya and another they will have to hire.

The trick post-surgery will be bolstering Justin’s immune system so his body doesn’t reject the new organs.

This will entail many lifestyle changes, including giving up uncooked lunch meat, bean sprouts and hardest of all — medium rare steak. He’ll also have to virtually live in a bubble during that time, wearing a breathing ventilator and avoiding being out in public.

Not to mention the risks involved in the surgery itself.

Once again, Justin takes it all in stride, though admittedly this is a hard one to wrap his head around given the risks and the costs to he and his family.

It’s a gamble full of risks and a myriad of what-if’s, he admitted, but then again, so is doing nothing.

“I’ll get there,” he said with a shrug. “But I’m not quite there yet.”

Community Support

It helps to have such a support network around him, including great bosses, friends and family and a bunch of strangers who have been stepping up to help, the couple said.

Up until now, the family has pinched pennies and dealt and shouldered looming medical bills, but this time, they feel overwhelmed. Tonya started a GoFundMe page in December to help with travel and living expenses for the couple, bills and medications that aren’t covered under their insurance.

That wasn’t easy for the Rushings, both Tonya and Justin admitted, who typically like to keep Justin’s health issues to themselves.

Necessity, however, prompted Tonya to reach out for help.

“Anyone who knows Justin, knows he is a very spirited, strong-willed individual with such an enjoyment for life,” Tonya said. “He has never come across a person he won't befriend, and despite his struggles, he continues to work.”

Stacy Koester saw the GoFundMe and decided to host a fundraiser for the Rushings in Gillette.

Koester worked briefly with Justin in the past, and had been following his story on Caring Bridge, an online site designed to provide a community for those with similar ailments.

For Koester, it’s personal because she lost her brother-in-law, Grant Koester, to heart failure last year.

“I watched him fight his battle and live life to the fullest when he was still with us, but I also know the struggles and hardships that come with the disease,” she said.

She also knows the financial hardships involved and wanted to step in to help organize the fundraiser.

The Rushings have been humbled by the outpouring of support, and say it makes all the difference to know they’re not going through this all alone.

For now, Justin continues to live and go to work just as he’s always done as he gets ready to take the next step in his journey.

Jen Kocher can be reached at: Jen@CowboyStateDaily.com

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JK

Jen Kocher

Features, Investigative Reporter