Timothy Sweeney ’99: Stepping up to a unique challenge

Timothy Sweeney ’99: Stepping up to a unique challenge

by Virginia Weir

In 2004, on one of their first dates, Tim Sweeney ’99 was dancing with his future wife, Beth. For a moment, she rested her head against him. “Something doesn’t sound right in your chest,” she said, alarmed. “Are you okay?”

“I took her advice and went to see a doctor at Yale that week,” Sweeney said.

Then 26, Sweeney had not known that he had cystic fibrosis, or “CF” – the childhood disease that usually kills its victims by age 10, and for which there is no cure. His medical records indicated that he had the disease. When Sweeney’s parents learned his diagnosis in 1979, they had decided not to tell him and simply treat him as normally as possible.

Sweeney, who grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., was aware that he was thinner than other kids, and had a persistent cough, but other than that he felt fine. He credits his “normal childhood” with helping him face the serious challenge that his cystic fibrosis eventually became. “I am so grateful that my parents raised me the way they did,” he said. “It was good not to have a label growing up. If I had known about the disease when I was 15, I would’ve been so nervous, and would have lived every day thinking ‘Why me?'”

After he met with the doctor, Sweeney’s life changed to a regimen of 20-plus medications a day. “I had been getting by at just 40 percent of lung capacity. It was pretty overwhelming at first, but I was happy and thought I could get better.”

Sweeney had a two-year stint as a magazine editor after graduating in 1999 with a degree in psychology, but he found himself drawn to work more with people and help them stay healthy. In spite of his disease, he had been an active child. His father was very athletic, and they exercised regularly, playing racquetball and running road races together.

Later, his uncle helped him get into competitive body building. In 2003, Sweeney won the state title in body building. He became a personal trainer for Equinox Fitness, where he has worked since, and finds his degree in psychology very useful. “When I first started as a personal trainer, my whole focus was aesthetics. Now, I’m all about health – and the only way to get to people is to get into their psychology, understanding their motivations and the way they see themselves.”

At that time, the irony of having cystic fibrosis and Sweeney’s work as a personal trainer was not lost on him. “At some points I was home on oxygen doing two-hour breathing treatments, and then I’d go back to the gym and help people with their workouts,” he said.

In late 2009, after five years of medication and therapies, Sweeney’s health was in major decline. He had been on the transplant list for only a few weeks when he was admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital, neither of his lungs functioning. After a week he was transferred to New York Presbyterian Hospital, where there was a transplant opportunity. It didn’t work out. After two more “false alarms” from lung donors, the hospital decided Sweeney should go home. He had perhaps a few weeks more to live.

As he was waiting in the hospital lobby to be discharged, a new lung donor possibility came through – a 25-year-old accident victim – whose healthy lungs saved Sweeney’s life.

Dr. Joshua Sonett, chief of General Thoracic Surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was Sweeney’s surgeon. (Dr. Sonett had operated on former President Bill Clinton after a complication in Clinton’s quadruple bypass.) “When I awoke in the ICU, Dr. Sonett was there. He’d just run the New York marathon the day before, and he kind of jokingly said, ‘Why don’t we run the Marathon together next year?’ and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.'”

As a result of Sweeney’s relatively good health prior to surgery and Dr. Sonett’s expertise, Sweeney was discharged after just six days. “I got home from the hospital and started walking on the treadmill the next day in my pjs and socks,” he said. “I set my mind to do it. Each day I did a little more. It was a slow process, but by summertime (2010) I was full strength.”

Sweeney and his doctor completed the New York Marathon together on November 7, 2010, almost exactly a year after his surgery. “Second to my son being born, it was the most amazing experience I’ve had,” he exclaimed.

These days Sweeney is grateful for his renewed health, his wife Beth, and their three-year-old son Timmy. He feels no inclination to run the Marathon again. “I’m more of a sprinter,” he said, wryly.