David Guthrie (’90)

Category: Accomplished Alumni | Awards

Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 18 months, David Guthrie has beaten the odds for 51 years.

David Guthrie (’90) gained recognition as a technology visionary as co-founder, with Alan Greenberg (’71) of Medcast, a medical news and information system for physicians that they sold to WebMD. Guthrie has continued his entrepreneurial ways as a venture capitalist, investing in early-stage technology and life science companies.
But when Guthrie returned to UT in October 2017 to receive his Accomplished Alumni Award, his career in strategic technology were overshadowed by the fact that Guthrie had reached the age of 51 at all.

“This means so much to me and my family,” said Guthrie, surrounded in Tyson Alumni House by his wife, Lydia (’92), four of their five children, and other members of their extended family. “I wish my parents were here to see this, since this is their award, as well.”

Ann Guthrie (’67), whose UT degree was in education, died in 1998. Ronald (‘64/’73) used his BS and master’s degrees in civil engineering in his 25-year career as a TVA structural engineer, after which he spent years after the Chernobyl disaster dismantling Russian nuclear reactors, earning a spot in the Tickle College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Hall of Fame. He died in 2016.

When David was 18 months old, he had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a degenerative, incurable disease of the lungs. Ronald and Ann were told to expect David to live a few years, perhaps into his teens. But they never gave up on him, and he never gave up on himself. “God blessed him with a fighting spirit,” says Lydia.

He grew up in Knoxville. His parents encouraged him to compete in swimming and tennis, alongside his sisters Angie (’85) and Shari. “Missed practices were not an option unless I was really sick,” says Guthrie. “I thank God for giving me a mom and dad who drove me to have the spirit of a survivor and not a victim.

“My dad had the foresight to buy me a computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, when I was in my early teens,” Guthrie remembers. “He knew I had an aptitude, and he knew I would have to spend a ton of time alone. I started programming and writing games. I just loved to create and innovate software that worked. I had a summer internship at Duke, where I wrote software for the Allergy & Immunology Clinic for the study of T-cells.”

During Guthrie’s teenage years, numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent at Duke Medical Center prevented him from completing high school. “With new treatments like Pulmozyme,” says Guthrie, “I was able to continue to fight, and my health improved. I decided to graduate with my GED. As my health improved, I wanted to go to college. My grandmother, Ernestine Weaver (’42) who used to sit with me for many, many days at St. Mary’s Hospital, wanted to see me go to college but said, ‘You will never pass freshman English. You just don’t have the foundations that are required.’ She meant well, and the Lord used this as one of the biggest motivating factors in my life.”

Guthrie went to the UT admissions office, where he was told he didn’t have enough coursework completed. Nor had he taken the ACT or the SAT. “I convinced them to let me audit a class to prove myself,” he says. “I got a virtual A since I really couldn’t earn any credits. The next quarter, I returned and asked to be admitted. I was denied, but I once again convinced them to let me audit another class.”

Eventually, he was admitted, having proved he could handle the course load. In the course of his college years he was in and out of Vanderbilt Hospital and missed many classes. Still, he says, “I wasn’t going to allow there to be any more excuses. My infections increased, and my lung function decreased, but the antibiotics and treatments still allowed me to rebound and live to fight another day.”

Guthrie also had the energy to start down his entrepreneurial path, starting a software development firm with his friend Ed Knowling. “Ed and I were partners,” says Guthrie. “He was the business guy. I was the tech nerd.”

Around that time Guthrie found himself as the emcee of the college class at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, where he met Lydia Anderson. “He was making fun of himself with a tag on the back of his jacket,” she remembers. “I really liked that. I like people who can laugh at themselves.” When David called to ask Lydia to a fraternity dance, she said, “I work at Regas, I’m on call that day.” It sounded like a no, but David didn’t let that stop him from pursuing Lydia. She was able to go with him after all, and they have been together since that first date on May 28, 1988. After David graduated with high honors from UT with a degree in business management and information systems and Lydia got her degree in human ecology, they were married, says Guthrie, “even though she knew the limitations that remained in my life.”

Guthrie’s career took off, as he and Greenberg launched Medcast and sold it for $250 million dollars in 1997 to WebMD. Guthrie stayed there until 2000, then went into venture capital, investing in early-stage technology and life science companies with Fuqua Ventures. At the same time, his health continued to decline. “My lung function was deteriorating,” he says. “My infections were becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics. But we still fought, and God wasn’t finished with me yet.”

After three years, Guthrie left Fuqua Ventures and joined PGi, a public communications company in Atlanta, where he served as chief technology officer for 15 years. “While at PGi,” he says, “I became 100 percent dependent on oxygen, 24 hours a day. My weight dropped, and my lung function fell to 21 percent. I had less than a year to live, and I was put on the lung transplant list. I had resisted this listing for a while, but my doctor said it was time to consider it and choose my path.”
At this point, Lydia and David had five children—Ansley, now 19, a student at Parsons School of Design in New York City; Grayce, 16, a junior in high school; Anders, 10, Wesley, 9, and Rosie, 8. The last three are adopted. “We had been blessed and wanted to give back,” says David. “We just wanted to serve. At this point, I had so much to live for and so many loved ones who needed me as both a husband and father. So, I decide to pursue the transplant.”

Right before Thanksgiving in 2013, I was scheduled for our quarterly board of directors’ meeting, and at 2 a.m. I received the call from Emory’s transplant team. A 23-year-old from Savannah, Georgia, had been shot in the head, and his mother had agreed to donate his organs. “We went straight to Emory, and within two weeks I was released with my new lungs and my new life. I began to breathe as I had never breathed before.”

Six months after the transplant, Guthrie developed lymphoma. “I dropped to 147 pounds and had a 102-degree fever for 24 days. I had tumors all over my body—lungs, intestines, throat and much more. I started taking a miracle drug called Rituxan, and my fever shot to 105. I was shaking in bed, and Lydia was holding me down. The doctor rushed in and gave me meds to prevent the reaction. An hour later, my fever broke, and I felt so much better. I went through this treatment for two years, and I am now in remission.”

Guthrie went back to work a few weeks after his first lymphoma treatment. “A year later, we sold PGi to a private equity firm out of New York for $1.1 billion. I left the company a year after that to assume a slower pace and to help six companies with their technology strategies. I currently serve on some of their boards, and I am having a blast.

“I am four years out from my transplant. The life expectancy for a double lung transplant patient is five to six years. My lungs are doing well, and there is no sign of rejection. God has a plan. There were times when I was alone in the hospital when God was the only one there. Life is a gift, not a given. I’m going to continue to enjoy these lungs and continue to work. I love to innovate.

“I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s. It was specially crafted, and the University of Tennessee played a huge role in preparing the launch pad for my journey. I will use this time to serve my family, work diligently, and enjoy my life. Let’s see what happens over the next 20 years.”