The Bonnettes, two of 11 siblings, were both in excellent physical shape and enjoyed running, weightlifting, and other athletic pursuits when they began experiencing breathing difficulties -- Michael in the late 1990s, and Robert around 2010.
Michael, a pilot, was exposed to toxic gases during an explosion that occurred during his deployment to the Middle East for the first Gulf War, in 1991. Though he sustained some burns on his hands, he showed no signs of respiratory distress. During a routine health screening about a month later, however, a scan revealed slight scarring in both lungs. Doctors said they would monitor him.
It wasn’t until about 1999 that Michael -- by this time retired from the military and a pilot for American Airlines -- began to experience shortness of breath. He underwent an open-lung biopsy, which revealed that he had pulmonary fibrosis, a disease in which lung tissue becomes scarred. There is no cure for the condition, and doctors told Michael he likely would need a lung transplant within the next decade.
“To me, it was a death warrant,” said Michael, 61, of Haddonfield, NJ. “I was going downhill fast.”