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Pulmonary Rehab Helps Patients Battle Back from Lung Disease

It’s no secret that lung cancer is as tough an opponent as they come, even for a guy with more than 100 professional boxing wins under his belt. George Magriplis will tell you the disease came close to knocking him out.

Lung cancer survivor George Magriplis
on a stationary bike.

The 76-year-old, who went 127-7 boxing for the Air Force, is back on his feet and swinging hard after surgeons removed a 5-centimeter tumor and part of his lung.

So is John Stansbery, a Gulf War vet who’s fighting back after a lung transplant in August.

They’re both tough guys, but they’ll be the first to admit they needed help to recover from their surgeries. They get that help regularly at University of Colorado Hospital, where they join other patients a couple of times a week for pulmonary rehabilitation in a spacious gym on the third floor of the Leprino Building.

Rebuilding endurance and lung capacity

For an hour and a half, the patients make like customers at the local fitness center, rebuilding their endurance and lung capacity by striding on top-end cardiovascular treadmills, cycling, lifting weights and checking in with their personal trainers, in this case UCH respiratory therapists Joan Balik, RRT, and Linda Stoll, CRT.

The goal is to help patients recover as much as of their lung capacity as possible. That not only improves their quality of life; it helps prevent return trips to the hospital. “Physical reconditioning is the biggest part of recovery,” says Balik.

A rocky road back

Respiratory therapist Joan Balik discusses
rehab regimen with lung transplant patient
John Stansbery.

Before starting the regimen, Magriplis says, he had trouble simply getting in and out of the house. He was severely deconditioned and the nearly constant back pain that required regular shots had landed him in a wheelchair. “It was a disaster walking from the parking lot to the building here,” he recalls.

Stansbery says he needed 6 liters of oxygen to breathe and had trouble lasting two minutes on the treadmill.

Effort pays off

Despite those initial misgivings, both have made significant progress in a relatively short time. Although Stansbery is still slowed a bit by ankle and foot swelling caused by the anti-rejection medications he’s taking post-transplant, he’s up to 15 minutes on the treadmill and curling small weights.

Magriplis says he’s not quite back to the 5 to 6 miles a day he used to walk, but he’s getting close, and the back pain is gone. “I’ve had nothing for two months now,” he says with obvious relief.

Many referral patients

The two are among the patients who make about 150 monthly visits to Pulmonary Rehabilitation Therapy, Balik says. Most are referrals from the Internal Medicine, Seniors, and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) clinics for help with managing COPD, cystic fibrosis, interstitial lung disease, lung cancer and pneumonia.

Pulmonary rehab patients use a spacious, light-filled gym on the
third floor of the Leprino Building.

The Transplant Center also refers patients like Stansbery both pre- and post-surgery.

"Pulmonary rehab helps patients get through the surgery and leads to shorter length of stay," says Maren Diercks, RN, MSN, transplant coordinator for the Lung Transplant Center. "After the transplant, it helps them regain their strength and get back to where they were with their work and family."


Happy to be feeling better

As Balik and Stoll put the patients through their paces, Magriplis and Stansbery make mock complaints, but their faces, wreathed in smiles, tell a different story.

“What I was really mad about initially was I couldn’t breathe,” Stansbery says. “But after the surgery and starting the process of recovery, I’m amazed at how much better I’m doing and feeling.”

For Magriplis, coming to the gym is a little like going back to the future. “I trained for years as a boxer,” he says as he churns away on a stationary bike. “I’m back in my element.”

This page is adapted from a story that appeared in the UCH Insider, the hospital's candid e-newsletter. The Insider, which is published biweekly, is available to people outside the hospital via a free e-mail subscription. Tyler Smith ( is managing editor of the Insider.