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Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Following Successful Double Lung Transplant Surgery, Bill Strickland Set to Scale Even Greater Heights
By Ron Cichowicz


Bill StricklandBill Strickland has been climbing mountains—at least the metaphorical kind—his whole life. Very soon he hopes to climb real ones. The lower Himalayas, in fact.

And when he does, it will be a triumph of his indomitable spirit and his refusal ever to give up whatever the odds.

Once a young and self-described disengaged African American man from Pittsburgh’s North Side, Strickland’s life began to change when he met Pittsburgh public high school teacher Frank Ross in the 1960s. Ross mentored Strickland throughout his teen years, and kindled in him an appreciation for the power of art, education and community. Ross also helped Strickland gain entrance to the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in American History and Foreign Relations, graduating cum laude in 1969.

In 1968, Strickland founded Manchester Craftsmens Guild, assumed leadership of Bidwell Training Center, in 1972 and started the National Center for Arts and Technology in 2007. His organizations have positively impacted the lives of thousands of mostly underserved individuals, received local—and in some cases, national and international—recognition and are being replicated in the United States and abroad.

These and other accomplishments weren’t without challenges. But few would compete with the one Strickland faced two years ago, when he was told he needed a double lung transplant.

“I was born with asthma and started smoking at a young age,” Strickland, 70, said. “I was cruising along fine until I got to be about 65 years old. Then I developed early stage COPD and put on oxygen. My pulmonologist said, ‘You’re a pretty sick guy.’”

That was something Strickland already knew. The COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, had severely limited his ability to breathe.

“I got to the point where I was literally suffocating every time I took a breath,” he said. “You can’t inhale enough oxygen to survive and you literally suffocate on your feet. They put me on oxygen and steroids and none of it worked. That kept me alive, but that’s all it did. I knew from the pain I was feeling that I probably had six months to live.”

Strickland said his doctor provided another option: a double lung transplant.

“I said to him, ‘I’m gonna beat this, so let’s get started,” Strickland recalled. “So he suggested I contact UPMC.”

As with every transplant candidate, Strickland was interviewed and underwent a series of tests to confirm his eligibility and ability to undergo the procedure. In preparation for the procedure, Strickland said he went to physical therapy for two years before the surgery to strengthen what muscle tissue he had left. Strickland credits his trainer, Raj Sawhney, with giving him the stamina to withstand the surgery.

 “Several of the docs told me that my work in physical fitness prior to the surgery is what probably saved my life because I was strong enough to go through it and healthy enough that I could withstand the violence of the procedure,” he said.

Strickland said that he was told part of his brain stopped functioning during the surgery causing some muscle paralysis and compromising of his vision, which continues to repair themselves. Once back home, Strickland said his wife Rose’s help and support were invaluable.

“My wife turned out to be a very good doctor,” Strickland said. “I can’t emphasize enough that you need a good caregiver. That’s almost as important as having a good doctor because recovery is no cakewalk. It’s major surgery and you are incapacitated and can’t do anything for yourself. I couldn’t even walk and I had also lost a big chunk of my memory.

“My recovery, from my doctor’s point of view, was extraordinary. They were very taken by the fact I could get back to work in five months.”

Strickland attributed much of his ability to his surgery and ensuing recovery period to his attitude and his faith.

“Those were essential medicine that preserved me through all of this,” he said. “If I did not have a belief in something, I don’t think I would have done nearly as well as I did. I’m more grateful than ever for life. It’s a gift. I believe I have an even deeper commitment to God than I probably did before the surgery because some people don’t make it, man. So I felt God didn’t have a desire to take me just yet.

“Also, without the love and support of people who mattered in my life, there’s no way I could have done this. You can’t do it by yourself.”

Another motivator for Strickland’s recovery is obvious to anyone who spends even a little time with him: His commitment to his work and his genuine belief that his work is not yet done.

“There are about 140 people who work for me and are counting on me to survive,” he said. “There are potential students out there in this region, country and abroad that still need our help; and we need more centers to make that possible. They need a new chance at life. I felt that responsibility to get back here and recommit myself to the work.”

And if Strickland has his way, what he has accomplished so far is only the beginning.

“I want to build more Centers all over the world,” he said. “We’re having active conversations with San Juan, Puerto Rico and Vancouver. We have a Center in Israel and we would like to present the idea about building one with his Holiness the Dalai Lama.”

And about that other challenges, the one that involves climbing the Himalayas?

“Fact is, I’m doing better than some of the docs who gave me the transplant. I’m now breathing at 123 percent capacity,” Strickland said. “My doctor says it’s possible,” Strickland said. “He’s had other patients who have climbed 10,000 feet. Denver is 5,000 feet and I’ve jogged through Denver. I’m going to climb until I drop. If I’m at 10,000 feet and I drop, then it’s 10,000 feet that I’ll have climbed.

Anyone want to bet against there being a Manchester Bidwell Center flag flying on the side of a Himalayan mountain sometime soon?



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