Unga family fights for breath as they deal with PVOD



Courtesy of Unga Family
Mackenzie and Henry Unga. Mackenzie was diagnosed with Pulmonary Veno Occlusive Disease in 2015. (The Ungas)

Mackenzie Unga had just been married to her husband, Henry. It was a time that should have been one of the happiest parts of their life together.

But the honeymoon phase ended early.

Just one week after the marriage, Mackenzie was diagnosed with Pulmonary Veno-Occlusive Disease (PVOD), a rare pulmonary hypertension that affects just 1 in 6 million people.

PVOD will eventually cause the heart to stop beating as it tries to push blood into failing veins in the lungs. Without a lung transplant, PVOD patients face certain death.

Mackenzie Unga getting oxygen from her oxygen tank. A 5K race hosted by BYU and Utah athletics will be held to raise money for her on July 16. (The Ungas)
Mackenzie Unga getting oxygen from her oxygen tank. A 5K race hosted by BYU and Utah athletics will be held to raise money for her on July 16. (The Ungas)

Although neither Mackenzie nor Henry are BYU graduates, they are close to the university community. Henry is related to both head football coach Kalani Sitake and legendary running back and current graduate assistant Harvey Unga. He is Sitake’s step brother and Harvey’s cousin. As they face this disease, these connections have helped spawn an idea: a BYU vs. Utah 5K, with all proceeds going toward saving Mackenzie’s life.

Sitake will join University of Utah head football coach Kyle Wittingham at the race and winners will be eligible for prizes from both school’s athletic departments. The race will be held July 16.

“They are both coming together for a good cause,” Mackenzie said.

Cosmo, cheerleaders and athletes from both schools will be present to support racers. Information about the race can be found on bravelittlelungs.com, a website started by the Ungas to document their journey and its emotional ups and downs.

The 5K race is only one of the many fundraising events hosted by the Ungas to provide for Mackenzie’s care and support. On June 25 they held a yoga and Zumba event in Salt Lake City with professional instructors. Mackenzie expressed gratitude for the dozens who attended, but especially for the strangers who she had never met who came to support her.

During the event, the effects of PVOD were clear as Mackenzie struggled to fully participate in the yoga and Henry tried to help keep her oxygen flowing from its tank.

While many might struggle with the uncertainty of the future, Mackenzie said she and Henry have a better perspective on life now and try to live each day with purpose.

The Ungas are moving back to San Francisco to be closer to facilities that can provide a potential lung transplant quickly. But they still have to work their way up a lung transplant waiting list.

“Everything is building up for a big wait,” Henry said.

Mackenzie can’t breathe on her own and relies on oxygen tanks wherever she goes; these are just some of the many changes the family has made in the last year.

Henry said the disease “changes the logistics of your life – you have to worry about your proximity to a hospital; you have to worry about how much oxygen you bring to the grocery store.”

Adapting to this has been no small task for the Ungas or their family.

“I didn’t really believe it at first. I didn’t fully understand,” said Mackenzie’s brother, Carter Madsen. “Throughout the months you could just tell how worse and worse it got and how fast it was happening.”

Madsen explained it was an eye-opening experience and that it taught him the importance of serving his family as he drove Mackenzie to doctors appointments, carried oxygen tanks around for her and, as Mackenzie pointed out, delivered treats from Sodalicious as needed.

“We have to just (live) for each day,” Henry said. “We’re planning for that, knowing that’s all we’re guaranteed.”

Details for the 5K Race:


Saturday, July 16th, 8:00 AM


Thanksgiving Point
3003 N Thanksgiving Way, Lehi, UT 84043


6:00 AM – 8:00 AM



$29.99/Children (12 and under),

$450/Corporate Sponsors (for 10 runners).

To register, click here.

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