Illness in Check, Unity Man Back on Diamond

Unity — Chris McGinnis was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth, had a double lung transplant at age 25 and now, at 42, takes about 40 pills a day to keep it under control.

Despite everything, he is a very happy man — married, 18-year-old adopted son, living in Unity, working for a Lebanon architecture firm and, most importantly, playing first base and hitting .325 in a men’s wooden-bat baseball league.

“I feel wonderful,” he said on Saturday, one day prior to suiting up for the Sunapee Old Lakers for a scheduled Connecticut River Valley Baseball League game in Claremont.

“If I hit a double and have to score on the next play,” he added with a laugh, “it takes me a while to recover.”

Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disease that affects the lungs and digestive system and claimed the life of Chris’s brother, Tim, at the age of 40 in 2007. Chris thinks of Tim every time he puts his first baseman’s mitt on. It was Tim’s glove, given to him by then-Sunapee High School baseball coach Dave Barry, when Tim was in high school.

It looked for a long time as if not only would Chris not play baseball again, but that his life was in danger as his weight dropped to 80-90 pounds, he was bedridden and his lungs were shot.

“Basically, I was on borrowed time,” he said.

Then the phone rang and soon after Chris was on a medical jet on the way to University of Wisconsin Hospital, where he underwent a 12-hour lung transplant operation that allowed him not only to live, but return to the baseball diamond as well.

“I’m not a religious guy, and the only time I said a prayer was when my best friend saw me off on that plane for the transplant,” he said. “Maybe I should say more prayers.”

McGinnis, 5-foot-8 and now around 170 pounds, couldn’t play high school baseball because of his illness, which limited his breathing and left him a very thin 115 pounds.

There are still dangers lurking out there. McGinnis has to worry about skin cancer because of his damaged immune system, and waste dust can be particularly harmful to his lungs.

“I could sit home and just worry all the time,” said McGinnis, “but I love to play baseball, and I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

“I told my transplant coordinator what I was going to do, and he told me to wear a mask. I never told him that I would never wear a mask, and I won’t. I’m just going full-bore, and whatever happens happens.”

The recovery from the operation was lengthy, and McGinnis still goes to the hospital four times a year to get his borrowed lungs checked.

“I had more tubes in me that you could imagine after that operation,” he recalled. ”But, you know, I don’t remember a whole lot about the recovery, so I’m glad of that.”

Once McGinnis recovered and started to get stronger, Billy Austin — his Sunapee Old Lakers coach — called him up. McGinnis started playing in softball leagues with stops in Newport, Hillsborough and Lebanon before the baseball team was put together last summer.

Sunapee’s first 2012 baseball game was at Newport. McGinnis admitted his first walk onto the Bates Memorial Field diamond left him scared.

“It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “I hadn’t even walked on that field for maybe 30 years, and I was not only on the field, but in uniform and playing. How great was that?”

McGinnis is happy to be breathing freely. That he can continue to play baseball is icing on the cake.

“It’s just an awesome league,“ he said. “You walk around and see guys you haven’s seen in a long time. I talk to the umpires and I’m having fun. I’m a lucky guy.”