March 1, 2024

Danny Sams’ Inspirational Journey Through Double Lung Transplant

4.3 min read| Published On: March 1st, 2024|

By Kyle Coppola

Danny Sams’ Inspirational Journey Through Double Lung Transplant

4.3 min read| Published On: March 1st, 2024|

Coach’s Courage

It was the day he was diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis and told he only had three to five years to live.

Learning that he needed a new pair of lungs to survive began a journey that unfolded into a tale of resilience, faith and the transformative power of organ donation.

The diagnosis came during a routine check-up for Danny, who was in his second decade of coaching after playing on one of the greatest football teams in Brevard County history — the 1972 state champion Merritt Island Mustangs that went 13-0.

The revelation of a debilitating lung disease was shouldered solely by Danny and his wife, Kim, for several months before he reluctantly revealed his condition to others. Onlookers were shocked. Danny didn’t appear ill while he continued coaching. No one realized the coach was involved in a daily battle for breath. 

A new opportunity

One of Danny’s closest friends during this challenging time was South Lake High School interim head coach Donnie Birchfield. The two had coached together for years and enjoyed a decade-long friendship.

Their bond grew stronger after Donnie accepted the head coaching position at East Ridge High School in Clermont and offered Danny a coaching position even though he knew his friend had Pulmonary Fibrosis. 

Danny, determined to fight and help Donnie, accepted the offer. He ended up using an oxygen tank during practices and games as his health declined, but he never stopped coaching and fought to stay on the sidelines as long as possible. 

Prepping for surgery

Danny continued coaching as his double lung transplant loomed, but he still had to lose 50 lbs. to be eligible for the surgery.

With determination to bring his weight down from 240 lbs. to 189, he started a daily routine of walking on a treadmill in his non-air-conditioned garage, wearing layers to induce sweat. This grueling exercise routine, which resulted in slow but steady weight loss, brought him closer to the target weight within a year.

“When you are facing death, it’s scary, but the doctors know what they are doing. I was determined to make the weight needed for the surgery,” Danny says.

Coach Danny, wife Kim and their pup Zeke

The call

January 31, 2023 marked a turning point. A call from a nurse at UF Health brought the news Danny had been waiting for — a donor match had been found. 

Urged to get to Gainesville immediately, Danny and Kim faced a mixture of anticipation and fear. The surgery, scheduled for 11½ hours, was a collaborative effort involving surgeons to harvest the organs of the donor. 

Before the surgery, Danny acknowledged the sacrifice of the anonymous donor and vowed to live every day in his honor. 

Danny’s trust in God, coupled with the support of his family and friends, saw him through preoperative anxiety. 

“I cannot put into words the thoughts going through my head before the surgery knowing I was going to be given a new set of lungs but that someone had to die for that opportunity,” Danny says. “I cannot possibly begin to put it into words.” 

Danny’s anxiety lessened somewhat as the UF medical team prepared to operate.

“As they wheeled me into the operating room it looked like something out of Star Trek,” Danny recalls. “It looked like I was on a spaceship with all the incredible equipment they have in there. Seeing all of this, I felt a lot better knowing I was in the hands of the best professionals in the world.” 

Recovery and rehabilitation

Waking up in the ICU after the extensive surgery, Danny found himself surrounded by life-supporting machines. The road to recovery, which involved relearning how to walk and regaining strength, was daunting. The team at UF Health Shands Hospital played a crucial role in his rehabilitation. They assisted him by gradually increasing his walking distances.

Despite the challenges, Danny expressed gratitude for the incredible care he received, as well as the unwavering support of Kim, who stood by him through every step of the journey. 

On March 1, 2023, Danny achieved a significant milestone when he walked out of UF Shands under his own power with his new lungs, a testament to his resilience and the success of the transplant. 

A month later, on April 10, he made a triumphant return to the East Ridge High School football field, where he was greeted with applause and a warm embrace by Coach Donnie Birchfield.

Reflecting on the journey, Danny credits former teammates and coaches for instilling in him the strength to approach the surgery like an athlete. 

Despite facing limitations post-surgery, Danny embraces life with gratitude and determination, vowing to live each day to honor his donor. 

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. But I realize that these are my lungs now,” Danny says. “I don’t even know who he or she is to this very day. I have to say that I am forever grateful for the ultimate final gift they gave to the world. I intend to honor them and live life to the fullest.” 

Danny also made an impact on Donnie’s son Bryce. When Bryce went for his driver’s license, he saw organ donor on the license. Bryce asked his father what that meant. 

“‘You remember Coach Sams? Both of his new lungs came from an organ donor,’” Donnie replied. 

That was all it took for Bryce to choose to be an organ donor. Other teammates followed suit. 

Current Legacy

Today Danny is gradually winding down his full-on coaching career. 

He intends to continue coaching as a motivational speaker but his days of the grueling football schedule are in the past. 

“If my story can change just one person’s life, then I have done my job,” Danny says.

His story, brought to light by Donnie’s wife, Cassandra, serves as an enduring testament to the power of determination, community support and the life-changing impact of organ donation.

The journey is ongoing and as Coach Danny Sams looks towards the future with continued courage, he remains forever grateful to the team at UF Health who provided him with the gift of life. 

“I want to express the importance of people becoming organ donors. I had my life saved by one. I can’t think of a better gift to the world than heroes like that,” Danny concludes. 

Photo of coach, wife and pup as well as coach leaning provided by Logan Deon Troutman, Storyline Legacy Film Company

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About the Author: Kyle Coppola

Kyle Coppola was born in Newton, Massachusetts and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communications from Curry College in 2016. After traveling to Florida on a family vacation, he decided he could not get enough of the warm weather and made the move from snowy Massachusetts to central Florida 8 years ago.

For the last decade Kyle has gained valuable experience in social media content creation, marketing and sales, writing, video production, sports announcing and even broadcasting for local radio stations, such as FM 102.9 in The Villages and FM 91.5 in Massachusetts. Every year he volunteers at The Villages Charter High School as a play-by-play sports announcer for the football games as well as a public address announcer for the basketball games, including the annual Battle at The Villages Tournament.

Outside the office Kyle is a husband and father to two beautiful girls along with their cat. In his spare time he likes to spend time with his family, travel, play golf and swim. He is also a huge sports junkie and even bigger motorsports fan and loves to attend racing events when he can.

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