By Claire Harlin
He was in his mid-40s, a father of two, a good friend, a wonderful father and husband. That’s almost all Bob Moldenhauer knows about the man who once breathed through the same lungs that he now does. That, and the fact that the man had a loving wife who made a crucial decision during her last moments with him that in turn saved Moldenhauer’s life and maybe the lives of others.
“One donor can save upward of eight people’s lives,” said Moldenhauer, a longtime Solana Beach resident who underwent his double lung transplant in 2009 after living for more than 11 years with pulmonary fibrosis. “It’s difficult for me to talk about my donor’s family without tearing up out of sadness for their loss and gratitude for the gift that they gave me. Despite their tragedy and sorrow, they still have this generosity in spirit to think of others in need.”
While it’s not easy for Moldenhauer to talk about his transplant experience and what he and his family have gone through during his nearly 15-year struggle, he shares his story out of hope that he will urge people to become organ donors.
There are more than 110,000 people in the country (and about 20,000 in California) who are approved and waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant. In San Diego alone there are about 1,500 people on the list, according to Donate Life San Diego. However, only 30 percent of Californians are registered to be organ donors, and only a fraction of those organs will be life-saving because so many are determined unsuitable for transplant at the time of need due to the injury or illness that resulted in the donor’s death. Organs must also be transplanted very soon after the donor dies, giving rise to time and geographic limitations.
Moldenhauer vividly remembers when he got the call around 5:30 p.m. on June 29, 2009 informing him that there was a pair of lungs that might be a match. He waited in the emergency room for three and a half tedious hours before being told it was a go.
Only three days prior, he had closed down his Solana Beach law practice of more than 30 years.
“I knew I was dying,” he said. “I knew I was declining very rapidly. There were the telltale signs that I had only a matter of months to live.”
It was about four months prior to that when Moldenhauer reported to his doctor that his mobility had declined and he could only walk about 10 feet at a time.
“Only weeks before I could walk a block, so things were becoming rapid,” he said. “My lung capacity had decreased to the point that I could hardly get up out of a chair.”
The rapid decline classified Moldenhauer — by way of a point system — as being in great enough need to finally get him on the recipient list he had been waiting to get on for more than a decade.
“It’s not about how long you’ve been waiting,” he said. “There are so many factors and criteria as to whether a patient can be listed or not.”
Moldenhauer said patients have to go through a number of medical tests, and after being listed, they must go through much follow-up testing to monitor their eligibility. At any point, a patient may be taken off the list and have to keep waiting.
Moldenhauer is a living example that a diagnosis can happen to anyone. He learned he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive disease of the lungs which inflames and damages the lung alveoli, not because he was feeling badly, but because of a routine life insurance underwriting process.
“My son had just been born a few weeks before the diagnosis,” said Moldenhauer, who was a non-smoker and avid runner. “Following my son’s birth I wanted to get back into shape and wanted to be around for a long time, so I decided to expand my life insurance coverage.”
Moldenhauer said that in the process of examining his medical records, someone from the insurance company discovered a spotted marking on a chest X-ray taken about two years prior. He was diagnosed at the time of follow-up.
“There was some disbelief,” he said.
Now, Moldenhauer dedicates his time volunteering for the local chapter of Donate Life, a nonprofit aimed at promoting organ donor registration, while recovering from some brain damage incurred during his transplant. He is also involved with the newly-formed Pulmonary Transplant Foundation, which provides education about heart and lung transplants, as well as financial assistance for both post- and pre-transplant patients. The foundation, although still in its beginnings, will eventually focus on supporting research among other things, Moldenhauer said.
Moldenhauer said he is so grateful to those who have been there for him — his donor’s family, his family, local families, medical professionals — that he wants to do whatever he can to give back. He said he thanks his son’s Little League coaches and teammates’ families, who provided guidance to his son, now 14, when Moldenhauer wasn’t physically able to participate.
“When I was in ICU after my transplant, many local families took my son into their homes while my wife took care of me and spent time with me in the hospital,” he said. “I’m the beneficiary of the generosity of my donor and my donor’s family and the magic medical professionals can perform if an organ is in the picture. It’s the people around me who are the heros. Not me.”
To register to be an organ donor or to learn more about Donate Life, visit