Pursuing a Passion – Sam Ira
  |  First Published: March 2011

Fishing, to those of us who enjoy it, is much more than just another recreational pursuit, sport or hobby. Quite simply, it’s a way of life.

According to inspirational Werribee angler, Sam Ira, fishing is the perfect remedy for managing and coping with a life threatening illness. Sam was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a chronic lung disease that causes respiratory failure and also affects the pancreatic and gastrointestinal systems. During his mid 20s, Sam’s lung function fell to an alarmingly low efficiency level that left him with no other choice than to opt for a double lung transplant.

Recently, Sam and I caught up for chat (on the water of course) to discuss his battle with illness and how a passion for fishing helped keep his spirits high during the worst of his ordeal.

This is Sam Ira’s inspiring story.

Pursuing a Passion

Sam has been keen on fishing for as long as he can remember. His dream is to land a 20lb snapper, but he also enjoys targeting squid at Queenscliff and basically anything else that swims in Port Phillip. “Fishing is part of my lifestyle and being on the water is a time to relax and leave my health problems on the shore.”

Pursuing a passion helps Sam stay motivated and provides him with the strength to deal with a chronic illness. Being on the water also provides a relaxed environment to talk openly about his condition, especially when the fish are not biting! “Knowing that my life could be a lot shorter than others, I’m forever grateful for the quality time I’ve spent on the water with family and friends.”

Unable to play any form of contact sport, Sam says that fishing is something he can manage in terms of physical activity. Just like dealing with illness, fishing is challenging and requires patience, self-confidence and a positive outlook. Sam is a stubborn character and despite his illness he tries hard to live a ‘normal’ life and not be too protective of his health.

A Lifelong Battle

Cystic fibrosis is the most common life threatening, recessive genetic condition in Australia and affects one in 2500 children. The average life expectancy for sufferers is about 36-40 years, although it does vary from one patient to another. At present there is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but a great amount of time is being directed towards finding new and improved ways of treating the disease.

Living with this condition basically involves daily physio treatment to clear the lungs of excess mucus; regular visits to hospital and a rigorous regime of daily medication. Prior to surgery, Sam lived with a permanent cough and was hospitalised on countless occasions to monitor chest infections. “Catching a cold or flu could be fatal for me so fishing during winter isn’t a great option”.

Apart from being underweight for much of his life, Sam was reasonably fit up until the age of about 16, but then his health declined significantly. Sam still managed to complete Year 12 and then went on to study Video Production at University, before commencing work at the Royal Children’s Hospital. His job involves producing the in-house television program, but as his condition deteriorated he was forced to limit his duties.

Fishing for Therapy

Over a 10-year period Sam lost approximately 75-80% of his lung function. Just taking a shower became an effort, let alone launching and retrieving his beloved 17’ Pride Charger, which in the spirit of living life to the fullest, was aptly named The Madman. At the age of just 26, Sam noticed a huge difference in his ability to fish, and taking the boat out was becoming an even greater struggle. “My condition changed rapidly and I was told by doctors that I should seriously consider a double lung transplant in order to survive”.

Sam concedes that at this point he slipped into a period of denial and went fishing at every opportunity to escape the pressure of having to make such a crucial decision. “There were times when people would stare at me coughing uncontrollably, almost completely out of breath, after just walking from the car park to the ramp.”

Thanks to the support of family and close friends, Sam kept his passion alive and still managed to and get out on the water reasonably often, even during the toughest times. Regular visits to the doctor to review his health soon turned into fishing reports as the physician knew that if he was able to fish, it was a good indication he was doing okay. According to Sam’s physiotherapist, taking the boat out on the bay was great exercise and being around saltwater would benefit his lungs. “Part of my treatment was to inhale hypertonic saline (saltwater) which helped loosen the mucus in my lungs.”

So, not only was fishing a form of escapism, but being out on the bay also had significant health benefits for Sam. “Fishing is therapy for me and I still believe it has kept me sane and reasonably fit. There’s a fair bit of work involved in taking the boat out and washing it when you get home.”

Even when he was unable to fish, maintaining the boat, researching reports and reading magazine articles kept him occupied. “Often I would drive down to Werribee South just to watch others launching and retrieving which I found therapeutic as well.”

Decision Time

After hours of discussion with doctors, friends and family, Sam decided to go down the path of transplantation at just 30 years of age. In the end he really had no other option. “If I was going to keep fishing and pursuing my dreams of one day getting married, having children and perhaps teaching them how to fish, it was clear I would need a double lung transplant. The chances of survival at less than 25% lung function are remote, so I had to give myself a chance.” After years of deliberation, he finally signed the papers. Recollecting the moment he put pen to paper Sam says it felt like he was literally signing his life away! Playing the waiting game was agonisingly stressful, but making light of the situation seemed to help him deal with the anxiety.

Quite often, Sam joked about being rushed to hospital via helicopter in case his new lungs became available while he was out on Port Phillip. “I spent a lot of time fishing with my best mate Fonz down the southern end (of Port Phillip) and we wanted to have an action plan in place.” Basically Sam had to remain within two hours of the hospital at all times so the plan was to drive to the Alfred Hospital by boat, presumably via the Yarra River!

A New Lease of Life

Unbelievably, the call came through after just seven weeks, which Sam describes as a miracle. Expecting at least a two-year wait, he still can’t believe it happened so soon. The surgery was successful and after a week of intensive care and a further ten days in a hospital ward, Sam began a three month rehabilitation program.

This involved regular visits to the Alfred Hospital gym and weekly education seminars on how to look after his new lungs and adjust to his new life. Sam’s lung function has since returned to 95% and he says it feels like having a turbo charger installed. He now has his sights set on travelling, full time work, building a house, meeting a wife and starting a family, and of course, upgrading the boat!

While lung transplantation is not a cure for cystic fibrosis, Sam views it purely as an extension of life. His future and life expectancy is still relatively uncertain, as doctors have only been performing this operation for the past 20 years.

Currently in Australia over 85% of all people (not just those with cystic fibrosis) undergoing bilateral, sequential lung transplants survive at least one year and 60% are still alive five years later.

Fishing and the Future

Although Sam has many other interests, he is adamant that pursuing his passion for fishing aided his recovery, both physically and mentally. While he was hospitalised, many hours were spent discussing, reflecting and dreaming about the annual Port Phillip snapper migration. Sam lives by the motto, “you can’t catch’em on the couch” and the thought of simply getting back out on the water was the driving force behind his recovery.

“Fishing was permitted six weeks after surgery, but being restricted to lifting no more than 2kg, I could only target small fish”, he says with a smile. With that in mind, just two months after the operation, Sam and I ventured down to the sheltered waters of the local harbour at Queenscliff.

Having never fished with soft plastics before, Sam picked up the technique quite quickly, landing half a dozen silver trevally within the first half hour. A month later we enjoyed another memorable session chasing salmon onboard Sam’s boat, The Madman. It has now been more than 12 months since the surgery and Sam is able to launch, retrieve and wash his boat without coughing or losing his breath. He’s also able to bring up the anchor on his own and of course target fish greater than 2kg!

No doubt there are exciting times ahead for Sam, including many more fishing trips chasing that elusive 20lb snapper on Port Phillip!

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