Reverend Joseph Kyles hunched his tall, slimmed-down frame over the desk inside of his spacious office at Promise Church of Chicago, 4821 W. Chicago Avenue. He was giddily explaining the features of a sleek black Fitbit wristband — the device used by fitness buffs and the health conscious to track everything from the number of steps a person takes to his sleep pattern.
“Check this out. I’m so proud of this,” he said, during an interview last week — less than three months after undergoing double-lung transplant surgery. Around 12 years ago, Kyles was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, an autoimmune disease that causes the lung’s tissue to thicken and scar, leading to acute shortness of breath.
“Last week, I took 29,000 steps. In the week prior, it was 22,000. That’s a big deal. The government says if you’re in excellent health, you can walk 10,000 steps a day. If I can do half of that without any conditioning I’m breaking the records. For someone who has a brand new lung, my capacity is supposed to be at 20 percent, but I’m more at 70 percent.”
The Oak Park preacher and veteran would likely forgive the listener who felt compelled, from time to time, to steal a glance at the bulky oxygen tank sitting against the wall less than a foot away from him. For years, it was like a bionic organ that kept him from living even as it kept him alive.
Kyles recalled a trip he and his family took to Branson, Missouri around two years ago. He said he rented a Chevy Tahoe with an extended cab and “half of that thing was filled with my oxygen supplies.”
“I had a machine bigger than this one,” he said, pointing to the big blue box the size of a 20-inch tube television that was against the wall. “I had tanks this tall,” he said, raising his hand at least three feet above his office floor. “You know, the big ones you have to drag around?”
Kyles might still be lugging those tanks if it weren’t for a series of close calls and fortunate events that the pastor and his wife, Chrystal Kyles — a longtime Oak Park salon owner who also co-pastors the church and helps run its daycare center and youth safe zone — consider signs from God.
“Immediately when they found out I had this disease around 11 or 12 years ago, my doctors sent me to Wisconsin to be evaluated for a lung transplant,” he said.
“Now, if I had had a lung transplant at that time, it would have financially ruined us. We probably would’ve had to close our business and our church, because we would’ve had to move to Wisconsin. So, God orchestrated it where after the final evaluation they determined that I wasn’t sick enough to get a transplant at that time. I tell people all the time, ‘Thank God for Obamacare’.”
Two years ago, the Kyles were in Wisconsin Dells on vacation when a blood clot that started in his leg before traveling through his heart and into one of his lungs forced him into the ER and nearly killed him. That’s when he was put on the waiting list for a transplant. This time, he’d only need to travel to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood and the surgery wouldn’t spell financial disaster.
But before he could be considered fit to receive the new organ, Kyles had to lose almost 50 pounds and undergo extensive dental work — just a few of many preconditions he needed to fulfill over the course of 18 months.
He said he was denied by seven orthodontic surgeons, all of whom thought operating on the 54-year-old would be too risky, before he finally found one willing to take the chance.
“During that 18 month period, you’re constantly being monitored. Your liver is being checked, your colon. I mean, man, they interviewed my mama,” he said emphatically. “That’s how serious it is when you’re getting ready to be on the list. They interview your spouse, your closest relatives, you have to see a psychiatrist and a psychologist. I had to see infectious diseases. I had to see someone to monitor diabetes. It’s intense.”
Kyles said he was officially placed on the donor list in January. Eight days after he signed the release papers, he said, he had a match. At first, Kyles said, he thought the voice on the other end of the call was playing a joke on him.
“I walked in the house and he said, ‘Chris, it’s the call, it’s the call!’ I thought he was on a prayer call, because everybody is always calling him to pray,” said Chrystal. “We couldn’t believe it. It was eight days later. That’s when it really became real.”
“I’m a B-positive blood type, which is a rare,” he said. “And to find two good lungs in the same candidate with the same body mass as me in eight days is incredible.”
Dr. Wickii Vigneswaran, a Loyola thoracic surgeon, performed the double lung transplant on February 6.
“Rather than cutting through the breastbone, Dr. Vigneswaran made two smaller incisions on the side of Rev. Kyles’ chest,” according to a media statement released by the hospital last month. “This less-invasive procedure enabled a faster recovery, said Dr. Vigneswaran, who has performed more than 500 lung transplants.”
“Rev. Kyles has a tremendous spirit,” said Loyola pulmonologist James Gagermeier, MD. “He has a perspective that enabled him to persevere despite more than a few setbacks.”
Seven days after his surgery, Kyles said he was walking the hallways of the hospital. Not too much longer, he was at home. The exuberant preacher was even able to return to the pulpit on Easter Sunday, where he preached a sermon entitled, “You Shall Live.”
“Your attitude, while you’re in the hospital and while you’re in recovery, is going to make a huge difference,” Kyles said. “I felt like I’ve been given a new lease on life and I’m excited about it. I want to share that excitement and exuberance with everybody I meet, now.”
Kyles said throughout his ordeal, the “thought of death never crossed my mind.” It wasn’t an option, he said. There are still things he needs to do.
While briskly walking out of his office for a photo, he pointed out a commercial grade printer in the hallway across from his wife’s office. He said the church prints the large, poster-sized signs that appear both inside and outside their roughly 12,000 square foot building. He’s seeking to pick up more contracts from other churches seeking similar printing services so he can put more young people, particularly young black men, to work.
Kyles, who is the former president of the 37th Ward Pastors Alliance, was influential in luring Walmart to Chicago and persuading the multibillion dollar corporation to allow a community restaurant, Uncle Remus, to lease space inside the store. Kyles said that set a precedence that is now being followed in Walmarts across the country.
The church is also seeking to grow. They have their eyes on a property down the street to relocate their sanctuary, freeing up more of their existing facility for youth-related programming, including the expansion of their daycare and safe haven program.
“My assignment is to change this community, not just this church,” Kyles said.
But before the community transformation ramps up, he has some more immediate plans in mind. Is there a bucket list? Is he going any place special?
“We’re out of here in July,” Kyles said. “That’s the first one. That’s the family vacation.”
The destination is Branson, Missouri — and this time, Kyles said, they’ll leave the oxygen tanks behind.