Making Connections: A Conference PHairytale

This article by Michael Knaapen, Director, Patient and Caregiver Programs, first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Pathlight magazine. Become a member of PHA to receive this quarterly publication full of patient profiles, medical information and tips for living with pulmonary hypertension.


Gary first laid eyes on Debra during a breakfast at PHA’s 2016 International PH Conference and Scientific Sessions in Dallas. He had been seated at a table by himself, but relocated to another table to socialize with other PH patients. A woman with black curly hair and a big smile, Debra, immediately caught Gary’s attention.

The two talked throughout the meal, at the end of which they agreed to reconnect later in the day. Unfortunately, they forgot to exchange names or contact information. Initially, Gary worried that he wouldn’t see her again. Even though he was distracted by the sensory overload of Conference — which he had waited two years to attend — Gary’s thoughts still kept going back to the beautiful stranger he had met at breakfast.

Fortunately, the two crossed paths in the hallways and again that evening during a mixer for patients and caregivers. They headed to a restaurant to continue their conversation and talked long into the evening. When they finally parted, Debra gave Gary her number and encouraged him to call her the next morning.
The next day at 7:30 a.m., Debra’s phone rang. “Hello?” she murmured sleepily into the receiver. “Hey, this is Gary!” came the perky reply. Debra laughed and insisted that 7:30 a.m. was a little too early to chat. She asked him to call back later. Gary did, and he and Debra have spoken every day since then.

Although Debra lives in Los Angeles and Gary lives in Dallas, their bond has only strengthened since last summer. In the fall of 2016, they shared a deep secret with one another: They had fallen in love. Soon after that, they shared their secret with the world and became engaged.

For Gary and Debra, this is only the beginning of a partnership dedicated not only to their love for one another but also for the PHA community. Together, they have spoken to PH support groups and at events sharing their story of love and of their struggles.

Gary will tell anyone who will listen how immediately after his diagnosis in 2010 he was depressed, gained weight and essentially gave up on life. Over time, and with the support of a dedicated PH medical team and the PHA community, he learned that the one thing that he could control was his attitude.

He committed to a treatment regimen and explored pulmonary rehabilitation. He fell in love with walking, especially after he discovered the flower-lined, pond-spotted path behind his apartment complex. With earbuds pouring music in his ears and cannulas flushing oxygen into his nose, he walks four days a week. Every other day, Gary heads to the gym to do pulmonary rehab workouts.

Through it all, Gary has become a messenger of hope for other PHers. To Gary, hope is a matter of having a positive and realistic attitude, complying with treatment laid out by PH professionals and surrounding oneself with love.

Debra and Gary found love at Conference – not just for each other, but for the PHA community. Thanks to their efforts and all who lead and share and give to this community, we know this story will end happily ever after.

2017-07-06T21:10:56+00:00 July 6th, 2017|