Whitesburg KY

Disease steals Knott miner’s future


Thin and pale, Danny Hall wears a white mask over his nose and mouth and hospital gloves on his hands.

Coal dust made Hall sick, destroying his left lung and requiring a transplant.

Now the 56-year-old former miner spends his days sitting in a recliner in his house, walking only if he takes it very slowly. His former pastimes, hunting and fishing, are out of the question.

Black-lung disease has taken away his breath, energy and future.

“I can’t do nothing,” he said.

Hall, who mined for 26 years, said he chose the profession because there were few options. He lives in one of America’s most impoverished regions, where aging mobile homes and dilapidated houses line winding mountain roads alongside newer, larger homes – many paid for with coal-company wages.

“In this area, that was about the only thing you could really make a living at,” said Hall, who lives in a bright, well-kept house. “About all my family worked in the mines.”

But along with the job came the dust.

“There was so much,” said Hall, who was diagnosed with black lung in 2000. “In 10 minutes you couldn’t breathe through (a protective) mask. It was clogged up.”

Over the years, Hall’s lungs had to work harder and harder, taxing his heart. In 2001, he had bypass surgery – and his breathing worsened.

By December 2005, when he got his new lung at the UK HealthCare Transplant Center at University of Kentucky Hospital, he said he had been given two weeks to live.

“My lung was hard as a rock,” said Hall, who has large scars on his back and chest from the operation. “They had to chisel it up to get it out.”

Julie Leigh, a transplant coordinator at UK, said black lung is not one of the most common reasons for lung transplants. But it’s not uncommon, she said, “especially in Kentucky.”

Hall’s new lung gave him another chance at life, but couldn’t restore his health. More than a year later, his right lung started bleeding, sending him to the hospital and leaving him vulnerable to infection and unable to go near others without the mask and gloves.

Today Hall’s breathing is raspy and labored. He sometimes depends on an oxygen machine – unlike most lung transplant patients – and takes 26 pills a day.

He’s been told that transplanted lungs usually last six years – and Leigh said Hall can probably expect to fare as well as other patients.

Looking back, the father of two grown children said that the money he earned and the middle-class lifestyle he built, weren’t worth the cost. He thinks about that when he watches his 4- and 8-year-old grandchildren run and play, and knows he will never be able to keep up with them.

“If I had it to do over, I would never go in the coal mine,” he said. “It can’t buy me what I really need. I need time.”

Laura Ungar is a reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, where this article appeared June 24.

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