Everybody could take a lesson from Shea Little’s relentless positivity.
Less than two months ago the 45-year-old Culver High School athletic director, football and baseball coach was still awaiting a lifesaving double lung transplant, unsure how long he had left to live.
“Even when I didn’t have much time left, it was all good,” Little said. “If I’m alive, if I’m upright, things are all good.”
After waiting more than a year on the transplant list, in late May, Little finally got the call he and his family had awaited for so long. On May 29, he underwent the lung transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. The transplant was successful, but Little and his wife, Naomi, remain in Seattle as he continues to recover. It could be a few more months before Little is able to return to Culver for his sixth year as AD and fifth as football coach, but he is aiming for sooner than that.
“The transplant surgery the doctor was very happy with,” said Little, reached by phone this week at UWMC Transplant Services. “Just fine-tuning everything, drugs, and taking care of the heart and get the fluid out (of the new lungs). It’s all pretty common, and overall, they’re pretty happy with how I’m doing … I ain’t dead yet. I’m planning on going back to work next fall and being the AD and coaching football and teaching (PE and health).”
In late 2011, Little was diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (A1AD), a genetic disorder in which the body does not produce enough of a protein that protects the lungs and liver from damage.
For many years the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Little — a Hillsboro native who was an offensive lineman at Eastern Oregon University in the mid-1990s and played briefly for the NFL’s St. Louis Rams — had experienced shortness of breath while playing football or exercising, and he frequently suffered from walking pneumonia and bronchitis.
When a lung biopsy revealed A1AD in 2011, Little — as always — stayed positive. And now during his recovery, he maintains that same outlook. His once-incessant cough has subsided, and he is walking 3 to 5 miles per day, he said. Still, doctors are trying to treat his atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) and get his lung capacity and breathing back to normal. A cardioversion — during which electric shocks were sent to his heart through electrodes placed on his chest — performed on Thursday restored his heartbeat to normal, Little said, but doctors will continue to monitor that.
Naomi Little said her husband’s unflappably sunny outlook has helped him through the ordeal.
“That’s how he’s approaching the recovery and the roller coaster of the heart going crazy and the numbers looking not so good, and then better, and not so good,” she said. “It’s just Shea. It’s exactly how he conquered the disease. He’s just being unwaveringly positive.”
Shea’s wait for new lungs was prolonged by his size — he needed lungs that would fit his enormous chest cavity. Last September, doctors thought they had them. But it ended up being “a dry run,” according to Shea.
“We came up (to Seattle) and they had me all hooked up and I was ready to be carted in,” he recalled. “The doctor came in and said he didn’t like the lungs. I looked at the doctor and said, ‘Hey, it’s all good, brother. I’ll be back coaching tomorrow then.’ He kind of looked at me sideways.”
Eight months later, Little got what so far appears to be a suitable set of lungs.
Aside from Little’s lighthearted attitude, key to helping the family make it through this struggle has been the support of friends and their community — not just in Culver, but across all of Central Oregon.
A friend in Prineville, where Little was football coach at Crook County High School from 2005 to 2007, started a GoFundMe page that has raised about $16,000 of the $50,000 goal to help the family with mounting medical bills, as they are six weeks into what doctors said could be a three- to six-month stay in Seattle. The Culver School District staged a cornhole fundraiser and also delivered food to the Littles’ home.
Naomi, who teaches language arts at Culver Middle School, choked up when she talked about the kindness her family has experienced.
“I’m going to try to not get emotional, because I do every time I talk about it, but our friends and our community have … really rallied around us and our children,” she said. “There are so many things they have done to help support us emotionally and financially. Our children, our school district, our bosses, our friends. … Everybody keeps saying it’s not much, but I can tell you for us, it’s everything. It’s really allowed us to focus on his recovery and just peace of mind.”
The Littles have four athletic kids: daughter Shealene, 22, and sons Mack, 20, Cole, 18, and Brody, 15. Shealene is a volleyball player at Tennessee Tech and is currently on a summer work internship in Tennessee. The three boys remain at home in Culver. Mack is a football player at Western Oregon University, where he will be a sophomore; Cole, a recent high school graduate, is headed to Oregon Tech this fall to play baseball; and Brody will be a sophomore at Culver High, where he competes in football, wrestling and baseball.
“The three boys are taking care of our house, mowing and weeding,” Naomi said. “The two older boys are working full time and Brody is cooking and cleaning. We haven’t quite yet crossed the bridge of if we’re not home by late August who’s going to stay with (Brody) when the boys have to go off to college.”
Shea is grateful for the support the family has received — and also for organ donors.
“That’s the side that’s tough,” he said. “Somebody else died for it. I would love to give a shout out for all the people who are donors. It’s amazing, because it gives you a second chance at life.
“I was telling my friends, ‘Hey, God’s got me. And if I die, that’s part of God’s plan, but if I make it through, we’ve seen God’s hand in this thing the entire time. Honestly, kind of the approach I’m taking is I’m not dead yet, so let’s keep rolling.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,