Havens perseveres as lungs begin to fail
MIDDLEBURY — Eddie Havens has spent the past 28 years making sure the Middlebury Union High School building has been in tip-top condition for teachers to teach and students to learn.
But recent months have seen Havens, a 52-year-old custodian at MUHS, do a little teaching of his own while tidying up the campus. And it’s a lesson steeped in courage and built on a real-life testimonial on the dangers of smoking.
At the same time students are jostling daily for parking spaces and spots in the cafeteria line, Havens is fighting for his life. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) back in May of 2006, an ailment that could claim his last breath unless he gets a new lease on life from a pair of donated lungs. He on a list to receive the life-giving donation that could arrive, at a moment’s notice, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“I’ve got my cell phone on,” Havens said with a smile from under his omnipresent New York Yankees cap.
COPD is a chronic lung condition that gets worse over time. Symptoms includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both. Those suffering from the disease find it increasingly difficult to breathe. Sometimes, it’s because their airways become narrow and filled with mucous. In other cases, it is because the tiny air sacs in the lungs become damaged and break down. Old air gets trapped, and there is little room for new air to get in.
Smoking is a top cause of COPD, and Havens acknowledged he smoked heavily for 34 years. He realized he kicked the habit too late, but hopes to provide a cautionary tale to the students he sees daily in the MUHS hallways. He doesn’t need to say much, as the his constant companion — a portable tank that feeds him life sustaining oxygen — provides tangible evidence of his affliction.
“To the kids here who smoke, I tell them ‘You’ve got to give it up,’” Havens said.
There was a time not too long ago when Tammy Havens recalled her husband putting in eight-to-10-hour shifts at MUHS, then coming home and still not being able to sit still. But COPD has sapped his energy to the point where he strives to make it through his workday, then comes home to rest. He has little stamina for his favorite outdoor activities, such as snowmobiling and four-wheeling. He now takes the elevator between floors at MUHS, as climbing the stairs takes too much out of him. Havens wasn’t able to make his annual pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium last summer because of the long walk from parking to the seating area.
It’s difficult for him to take a shower because of the vapors from the hot water.
Even the most rudimentary physical motions he took for granted are now a strain for him.
“Lifting, tugging, pulling and bending,” Tammy said, “is all hard for him.”
Still, Havens perseveres and wants to stay on the job until he gets that all-important phone call from Boston.
“Just keep going,” Havens said, as another audible spurt from his air tank shot its way into his failing lungs.
“His doctors don’t know how he’s doing it, but he’s doing it,” Tammy Havens said.
But Havens and his family know they can’t do it alone. That is why they are somewhat reluctantly accepting donations to help them cope with the considerable expenses that Havens’ insurance policy won’t cover. Chief among those expenses are transportation and lodging associated with the many trips the patient must make for medical checkups in Boston. Those trips will only get more frequent following a double-lung transplant, when physicians will have to make sure Havens’ body doesn’t reject the new organs.
“It’s been a rough haul; very stressful — not knowing when we will get the call and praying that his lungs won’t stop,” Tammy Havens said.
Family and friends have organized a series of fund-raisers to defray some of the Havens’ expenses. They include an upcoming flea market, bake sale and food sale at MUHS this Saturday, March 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; bingo at the Orwell Town Hall on Friday, March 25, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.; a flea market and bake sale at the Ferrisburgh Methodist Church on Route 7 on Saturday, April 9; and a bingo at MUHS from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, April 15.
Tammy Havens continues to be amazed at the outpouring of support from residents and businesses that have donated various items and gift certificates for the fund-raisers.
“I almost cry when I pick up the donated stuff,” she said. “We’ve never had to ask for any help.”
Anyone able to lend a hand should call Wendy Begnoche at 948-2064.
Meanwhile, the MUHS community will be pulling for Havens.
“Eddie is a fantastic guy,” said MUHS principal Bill Lawson, who has known Havens since 1995. “He’s always in a positive and upbeat mood and is always willing to do everything we ask of him.”
Havens has proved a valuable multitasker, Lawson noted, as he has been able to fix locks, perform minor plumbing chores, replace water fountains and mend doors, among other things.
Seems like the only folks Havens rubs the wrong way are Red Sox fans who have to look at his Yankees attire every day, Lawson said with a chuckle.
“But some years, he gets as good as he gives,” noting recent Red Sox fortunes.
“Obviously, we wish him well,” Lawson said. “We hope he pulls through this and comes back as good as new.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].