Have you heard of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF)? Though it’s still unknown to many, one local man is committed to raising awareness of the disease in Louisville and beyond. When he was diagnosed with IPF in 2014, Pastor Mike Olsen was shocked. He’d never smoked; how could he be dying of a rare lung disease? The doctor told him he had two years to live. Even as his symptoms advanced, Pastor Mike defied the odds by living three years beyond what the doctor foretold. In 2019, at the five-year mark, Mike received a double lung transplant. The surgery that saved his life almost killed him; in fact, he died on the operating table. He returned to life and eventually awoke from the coma that followed, only to undergo (to-date) 31 bronchial stenosis surgeries.
That’s the medical side of the story, in brief, but it’s only part of Pastor Mike’s remarkable story. When he first got the bad news, Mike considered his options. “I could go into a depression or do what I normally do: get outside of myself and help others,” he says. That was the beginning of the grassroots effort called The Mike Olsen Project. “I knew there were others who must be scared and didn’t know where to turn.” Making it his mission to raise awareness about IPF and support others like himself, Mike began to reach out and minister to others.
One of those early conversations was with a man in Texas named Ruben. Mike gave him a call, which turned out to be the first of many. In time a friendship developed, and the two shared stories of the ways they were working to raise IPF awareness in their respective communities. One day, Ruben told Mike that he’d saved his life. The night of their first call, Ruben had decided he would take his own life. It was Mike’s words of support and encouragement that gave him the courage to hang on and battle his IPF.
Motivated to be the voice of fellow IPF patients who couldn’t leave their homes, Mike, with oxygen tank in tow, began to connect with a lot of people. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer was Pastor Mike’s first stop, but he also met with various congressmen, Sen. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, and even President Trump. “I wanted these folks who make healthcare laws to hear from a ‘real’ person,” Mike says. He also met musician Joe Nichols, whose father passed from IPF, Bernie Williams of the Yankees, and Grammy-winning musician TobyMac. Dennis Quaid, who knew of IPF because fellow actor Marlon Brando had it, invited Pastor Mike to a bar in Lexington where his band was playing. Together, they sang Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and then Mike spoke to the crowd about IPF. He takes every speaking engagement he can and is working with University of Louisville programs such as the Center for Healthy Soil, Water, and Air, and the Green Heart Project, a unique experiment testing whether more green space will improve air quality and health.
Where does he get the energy? As a pastor, his faith is strong. Mike also draws heavily upon his love of art and music. There is also his drive to educate: “I wanted everyone in Louisville to know about this disease. Now it’s gone even further than that,” Mike says. The Mike Olsen Project extends beyond the United States. For example, Austria uses Mike’s videos to raise awareness, and he has exchanged letters with the King of Norway, who has a relative recently diagnosed with IPF.
A folk artist in his own right, Mike has created several pieces that speak to his experience. When Mike heard the song All I Can Do Is Keep Breathing, he called musician Ingrid Michaelson and asked her if he could use it in his awareness campaign. She gave him permission. He makes what most people would never conceive of doing seem easy. “If I get a nudge to do something, I just do it. People say I have hutzpah,” Mike says.
Mike’s wife Patti says, “I am stunned at all he’s gotten done. I have a front row seat for how focused he is on his goal. ”
What’s next? Pastor Mike is working on obtaining 501c3 status to establish The Mike Olsen Foundation. In the meantime, you can learn more by going here and entering “Mike Olsen Project.” No doubt he lives his personal life philosophy every day: “Make every breath count. Enjoy life to its fullest.”
P.S. Meet Jamey Aebersold who finds harmony in his life.
BY: MEGAN S. WILLIAM | PHOTOS BY: MELISSA DONALD