There are so many things we do daily that we take for granted. You don’t usually think much about breathing, until it takes everything within you to get a deep breath. Kenny Morphis, owner and Head Coach at Salem Gymnastics & Swim, in Winston-Salem, NC, knows all too well the struggle to breathe and the exhaustion that comes with limited oxygen. In the end, the only option for Kenny in treating his COPD was a double lung transplant, but the journey to that life-changing decision was a long one.
The Diagnosis You Never Want to Hear
Kenny Morphis, born in eastern NC, spent his formative years with his family living in West Berlin, Germany, where his father was a Southern Baptist Missionary. Kenny eventually made Winston-Salem, NC, his home in 1984. Throughout his life, Kenny grew up playing sports, including baseball, football, and soccer in high school and was a member of the tennis team at Gardner Webb, where he majored in PE and minored in psychology. In 1981, he found his calling in life in a newspaper advertisement while visiting his sister in Winston-Salem.
“After college, I answered an ad looking for help in teaching beginner-level gymnastics classes. As soon as I took that job, I knew I had found my passion and that my career of ‘flipping kids’ had begun,” recalled Kenny.
For over four decades, Kenny and his wife of 33 years, Beth, have partnered at Salem Gymnastics, working with tens of thousands of children, helping them reach their individual best, whether that be learning a cartwheel, winning a state or national title, or receiving a college scholarship. Now, their son, Jon, has joined the family business and daughter, Alex, helps out as well. In the 42 years since the business began with original owners Frank and Barbara Minter, it has now added a 5,000 square-foot indoor heated swimming pool. During his days training, Kenny began having shortness of breath doing daily activities, which was treated with an inhaler which worked for a couple of years, until he had a sudden and severe respiratory reaction to gasoline fumes. In September 2018, Kenny was diagnosed with end-stage COPD and the resulting news would not be anything anyone would ever want to hear.
“When we learned of the severity and the advanced stage of my illness, the prognosis was grim. I was placed on oxygen 24/7, given a Trilogy machine to aid my breathing while sleeping, and started on a regimen of pills and inhaled medicines that I would take multiple times each day. While meeting with a team of doctors, Beth blurted out, ‘What about a lung transplant?’ They told us it was not that easy, but Beth was insistent, ‘Why not? Somebody gets organs every day—why not Kenny?’ After cancer screenings and other tests, I was recommended to Duke for further evaluation. That December, Beth and I traveled to Durham for a week of extensive testing to determine if I would be a good match for their program. After 23 tests in five days, I was accepted into the transplant program,” said Kenny.
Upon approval for the transplant, Kenny was told that it was best to wait until his lungs were not able to sufficiently function with day-to-day tasks. In the meantime, he stayed on his medicines and used oxygen at ever-increasing levels, alternating visits between Duke and Wake Forest Baptist Health, who worked in close partnership. Kenny continued to coach; however, the strain from the lack of oxygen kept him sitting at a table, sometimes having trouble speaking long sentences to his athletes. In the fall of 2021, the time for the transplant finally arrived.
“Mid-September we moved to Durham to begin pre-surgery rehab; I was placed on the transplant list on October 1st. We received ‘the call’ four days later that a donor had been found and that I should come to the hospital! Beth and I barely had time to say our goodbyes before I was being prepped for surgery. Early on October 6th, I received a bi-lateral lung transplant in an 11-hour procedure. When I awoke, Beth told me I had new lungs! The next few days are foggy and included walking a few steps each day and eventually circling the halls with other transplant recipients, working up to a mile a day. My body went from having 19 tubes in it, post-surgery, to none, and the team kept a close watch on every aspect of my physiology. The doctor said the lungs are a really good set…he stitched them in, and they started breathing immediately. Amazing!” Kenny commented.
The support Kenny received was overwhelming. “The camaraderie between patients was awesome and my Facebook friends were great. Beth wrote each of the virtual well-wishers on post-it notes and placed them all around my room. Salem’s gymnastics team made me an awesome “get-well” poster; knowing that I had so many people pulling for me was a great inspiration,” stated Kenny.
Surprisingly, the pain through it all was minimal, with Kenny eventually needing just Tylenol. Kenny was released from Duke Hospital on October 28th. “After about a month of cardio-pulmonary rehab at Duke, I was released to come home, just in time for Christmas,” Kenny said.
Appreciate the Small Things and Take Nothing for Granted
When you face a diagnosis like Kenny’s, you tend to look at life a bit differently. “I’ve learned to appreciate the small things that are easy to take for granted. The physical ability to work at the gym with my athletes and co-workers is something I don’t take lightly. I appreciate my family and how strong they were in this process, and I have great gratitude for doctors and nurses, all those who make a hospital run. My limitations of endurance are progressively getting better as I continue with rehab. At this point, life looks promising, and I know I will have challenges, but I plan to live my life to the fullest with my family,” commented Kenny.
Beth said, “Since the transplant, Kenny is a new man. He is no longer on oxygen, his energy levels are good, his color is good, and he’s back to being his old self. He’s back to coaching, golfing, and is looking for a new motorcycle. We are so grateful to his donor and the entire medical staff. It is truly a miracle.”
You’re never too old to register as an organ, eye, or tissue donor; there’s no age limit. Being an organ donor can make a big difference and save a life, as it did for Kenny. The Morphis family is so grateful for the selfless decision that was made to give Kenny a second chance at life.
To register for organ donation, visit DonateLifeNC.org.