His lungs helped him compete in 157 triathlons; COVID-19 destroyed them

“You go through life and you’re healthy, and all of a sudden you can’t breathe."
Heroes RJ Redstrom Collage.png
Posted at 12:58 PM, Apr 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-30 08:13:09-04

POWHATAN, Va. -- Some people collect coins. Others comic books. R.J. Redstrom masses medals. Not bought, but earned.

“The physical fitness aspect is so intertwined in my life it is what makes me go. It is what defines me.”“There are some that are near and dear to my heart,” said Redstrom. “It is a bucket list thing for a lot of people.”

Redstrom lives to compete. And cross the finish line.

“Everyone of them I had butterflies. Before it started,” remembered Redstrom “It is more than just a race it is a lifestyle it really is. You’re really competing at the edge of your physical fitness allows you to do.”

The man from Powhatan pushes himself to the limit.

“It feels good. It feels like what I’m supposed to do,”said Redstrom.

Triathlons are a combination of swimming, cycling and running. Triathlons are Redstrom's race of choice. He averages about 10 a year. He has completed 157.

COVID restrictions canceled competitions across the country in 2020. Redstrom would need to bide his time.

“This is something that I will do till my body lets me,” said Redstrom.

But in August of 2020, the man who works in human resources at CJW Medical Center would face his toughest opponent to date.

“On a Monday at the end of the day I had a little bit of a cough. I woke up the next day and felt horrible,” Redstrom recalled.

A positive coronavirus test would send the athlete spiraling.

“That is one of the first things most people ask me. How did you get it. You’re pretty fit,” said Redstrom

An ambulance rushed him to Henrico Doctors.

“You go through life and you’re healthy and all of a sudden you can’t breathe,” said Redstrom.

The man with hundreds of triathlons under his belt was no match for for the virus. “Covid pretty much destroyed my lungs,” he said.

Redstrom’s chance of survival bleak.

“I was told, and my family was told, to be prepared for the end and that I wasn’t going to make it,” said Redstrom.

The 58-year-old spent weeks contemplating his fate alone. The U.S. Army veteran’s situation was dire.

“It was almost too big to comprehend,” he said. “The only chance I had with life was a lung transplant.”

In October, donor lungs became available. Surgeons at UVA saved Redstrom’s life. The patient spent 76 days in the hospital and lost 50 pounds.

“Here I am today talking to you,” said Redstrom.

While overjoyed, Redstrom’s mind always drifts to a complete stranger.

“The donor is the real hero in all of this. The donor is the one who made this possible,” said Redstrom.

Next October, on the anniversary of his surgery, Redstrom will be given the chance to contact the donor’s family.

“You just really wonder. What age they were. Where were they in their life and how many things are they missing now,” said Redstrom.

Five months removed from his life-saving surgery, the athlete is putting his new lungs to good use.

“The sky is a little bluer. The food tastes a little better. The air is sweeter. Every day is a gift,” said Redstrom.

Every step moves Redstrom closer to his goal -- adding one more keepsake to his collection.

“I feel like I owe that to that person to make these lungs as strong as they possibly can be and to live as long as they can,” said Redstrom.

Redstrom returned to work full-time this week. The athlete plans on competing in one more triathlon before the end of the year.

April is National Donate Life Month.

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