Crossing America by Rail, Thanks to the Gift of New Lungs

A columnist with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis enjoys life after lung transplant

Samuel Kirton avatar

by Samuel Kirton |

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Rail travel has long been shrouded in both mystery and romance. English novelist Agatha Christie famously wrote “Murder on the Orient Express,” a tale of intrigue involving one of her most famous characters, Hercule Poirot. American singer-songwriter Steve Goodman originally wrote and recorded “City of New Orleans,” a song about a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans that later became a hit for Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson.

A line from that song became more familiar these past two weeks:

“Good morning, America, how are you?”

Travel we must

In October, I wrote that my wife, Susan, and I would be taking our first significant trip since the start of the pandemic. When I was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) in January 2017, my care team urged us to continue living our life, which we did by traveling the world.

As my IPF progressed, our travels changed. We began to seek out places that interested us that we could reach by car. Packing became different as we had to ensure that we had all of the necessary medications and oxygen for the length of the trip, plus two days as a safety net. We continued to travel until the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

My IPF demanded an extra level of precaution to avoid contracting COVID-19. After being listed as eligible in March 2021, I received a bilateral lung transplant on July 10, 2021, which started the clock on a year without travel.

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Riding the rails

The travel bug was gnawing at our souls, but a cruise or long-haul air travel is not in the cards for us right now. We wanted to travel but needed to feel safe. This was especially important because I just had a bout of pneumonia in late September.

After some research, we settled on Amtrak’s California Zephyr train, which travels between Chicago and Emeryville, California, a suburb of San Francisco and Oakland. A private bedroom compartment with a bathroom offered us the ability to isolate.

The trip

We spent 52 hours traveling to Emeryville from Chicago. On board, most of the staff wore masks, while only a small number of the passengers did. The train cars were two levels, and the cars with sleeper accommodations were separated from the coach class cars. An attendant set up our bunks in the evening and stowed them in the morning.

Meals were available in the dining car for passengers traveling in sleeper compartments. On the first night, we had dinner in the dining room. Seating was at tables for four. During that first meal, we were seated with another couple. We took advantage of having most of our remaining meals in the comfort of our compartment. The Amtrak attendant took our order and delivered the meals to us.

Our compartment had a window approximately five feet wide. Outside of our compartment, across the passageway, windows extended most of the length of the rail car. A domed observation car was available and open to all passengers on the trains, but it felt better to us to enjoy the view from our compartment.

An older man stands on the side of a snow-packed road overlooking a breathtaking valley covered in white snow and dominated by white mountains and pine trees. He's dressed in layered clothing and a baseball cap and has a walking stick.

During a cross-country train trip, Sam enjoys the scenery above Yosemite Valley after an early November snowfall. (Courtesy of Sam Kirton)

A significant post-transplant victory

The trip was a huge success. We took in views of the U.S. that many will never see from the miles of interstate highways that crisscross the country. We rode the rails that parallel the Colorado and Truckee rivers. We sat on a rail siding with a stunning view of Donner Lake, in northeast California, while waiting for a freight train to pass on the main tracks. Susan saw her first bear in the wild lumbering alongside the tracks. There was fresh snow in the mountains near the Nevada-California border. Approaching Emeryville, we rolled along the California coastline.

The best sight, however, was not through our window. In Denver, the Mile High City, my oxygen saturation was 96%. As we crossed the Continental Divide at an altitude of 8,890 feet, my oxygen saturation was 94%. I had no significant shortness of breath as I did before my transplant.

I’m thankful for the opportunity my donor and donor family have given me. This trip allowed me to experience this gift in a new way. In moments like when I saw my oxygen saturation, especially at a high altitude, the enormity of their gift overwhelms me. It allows me to make every breath count.

Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


Karen Carns avatar

Karen Carns

Another fine story of gratitude and new life experiences, living with new lungs and a new way of travel. It is always a blessing to hear of another success story and blessings that result from lung transplantation.

Thank you Sam for always sharing your insights and stories with the rest of the world by making every breath count!!

Samuel Kirton avatar

Samuel Kirton

Thank you for reading my column and for your comments. As you know there are often bumps in the road following a transplant making even the smallest of victories magnificent. I owe it to my donor to make every breath count!
Sam ...

Sandra Hackett avatar

Sandra Hackett

Thank you very much for the update of your journey since your surgery. It is very good to read other’s stories. I had my bilateral lungs transplant surgery on May 19th 2022 at the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx N.Y. This month 19th will be my 6 months anniversary. I was called 3 times before I received the surgery, in January I was called then was told the lungs had pneumonia before I was taken down to surgery then the next morning I was told there are lungs again in the end there was no surgery I was send home. In April I was called again no surgery was tested positive for Covid was sent home again. I wasn’t upset because I told the doctor the first time that God was in the mist and when it is the appointed we will know. Then the 18th May I got the called again to come in and that was the appointed time.

Samuel Kirton avatar

Samuel Kirton


Thanks for reading my column and for sharing your story. You waited on the lungs that were right for you. Those dry runs or calls where there is an issue identified with the lungs precluding transplant are blessings in disguise. Please come back and let me know how you are doing. Share each of your post-transplant victories with other readers.
Sam ...


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