Select Page

Organ donation is an amazing thing. Wow. Isn’t it crazy how modern medicine, by God’s unique design and mercy, allows us to give others life through our organs? It baffles me. I experienced this in part through working as a nurse on a bone marrow transplant floor,  but to personally be given life through someone else’s lungs is absolutely indescribable. I feel immensely honored to be given extended life through someone else’s selfless decision to mark “organ donor” on their driver’s license. 

Before I go into my transplant story, I will briefly explain events leading up to it. In 2017, my health took a turn for the worse. My lungs were not bouncing back after IV antibiotic therapy and my routine “tune-ups” in the hospital became much more frequent. After being hospitalized 5 times in a year, and not being able to work consistently without it taking a toll on my lungs, I made the very difficult decision to stop working as a nurse in the summer of 2017. On January 2nd, 2018 I was admitted to USC with a 104-degree fever and a very severe case of pneumonia that sent me to the ICU. I was started on oxygen and my lung function dropped in half. After months of trying to regain lung function with no success, in April 2018, it became clear to my doctors and I that it was time to be evaluated and listed for a double lung transplant. After choosing UCLA as my transplant center, and a long struggle with insurance, I was seen by the transplant team at UCLA in June 2018. My evaluation happened in the inpatient setting (meaning I was in the hospital), because I was too sick to do it in the clinic setting, which sped the process up considerably. After tons of testing and a last stitch effort in treating my persistently infected CF lungs, the team at UCLA officially listed me for transplant on July 19th, 2018. 

Following being listed, I quickly became “inactive” on the list due to a stubborn and persistent infection with the adenovirus (a fairly common virus, but in my lungs, it wreaked havoc, and made me ineligible to receive new lungs as long as it was there). In order to be eligible for a transplant, you must be sick enough to need new lungs, but also not too sick that you won’t make it through. Having an active infection of any kind is not something you want when you have to suppress your immune system. It doesn’t make for good outcomes. The next few months would be a waiting game and a lesson on trusting in God’s timing with being inactive on the list nearly half the time. 

What brought me comfort was this: I had absolutely no control over it, God did. I knew His plan was good, whatever the outcome (not to say there wasn’t a whole of anxiety mixed in). I knew that in order for this transplant to work, everything would have to be timed in a way that only God could orchestrate. I would have to be fever free (and I literally had a fever every other week) and the virus would have to be gone. Not to mention my donor’s life. This process was not just about me. This was just as much, if not more about my donor’s time left. I was not and am not entitled to new lungs or longer life. The fact that I am living with someone else’s lungs is an ABSOLUTE GIFT. 

After 5 and 1/2 months of waiting, on January 2nd, 2019, I got the call for lungs. The crazy thing is, the call happened exactly one year (to the day) after I was admitted to USC with pneumonia. The hospital stay that changed everything. The timing of it all was honestly wrapped in God’s faithfulness. Why did I expect anything different? 

Two days before I got the call I had just finished a course of IV antibiotics, I felt the best I’d felt in months, and I had no fever or active infection from the virus. God’s timing was also in the travel plans of my family. My parents had just flown back to Idaho after being out here for Christmas. They left on the 31st, I was alone one night, then my sister Andrea flew in on January 1st to spend the week with me. She had the time off work, so she decided to come to visit. That night we went to bed not knowing that we both would pray for my lungs to come soon. Also, that night I had received a message from a fellow CF transplantee friend who shared that he had a feeling my call would come soon. Sure enough, at 5:45 am that morning UCLA called me and offered me my donor’s lungs. I missed the first call, then woke up to the second. I thought I was dreaming. They asked if I’d like to accept the lungs and I said YES! Then I got to wake up my sister. I opened her door and in the dark said “Andrea, Andrea! They called me! They called me! They called me for lungs!” I asked if I was dreaming and she was there to tell me it was real. We made phone calls to the rest of my family and set out on the road to UCLA. 

We arrived at UCLA around 8 am, got admitted, and went straight to the pre-op unit where they ran a bunch of tests to make sure I was in good shape to go. One of the interesting things about transplants is that there’s always the possibility of a “dry run.” A dry run refers to getting a call offering an organ (s), but upon arrival and final check, the organ(s) are not seen to be fit for transplant. So, I went in knowing that it’s wasn’t a sure thing, and there was the possibility that I could go home with my old lungs. I waited with my sister and a group of loyal friends in the pre-op room until about 2 pm. At that time they said they were ready to take me back to the OR. I gave my hugs and said my “see you laters.” Then the tears started. I had peace. This was happening. They hadn’t told me yet, but I knew it was happening. 

They rolled me into the OR and started the usual prep while we waited for the official OK from the surgeon. He would visualize the donor lungs in the adjacent OR room and make certain they were good lungs. I laid in the OR staring at all the equipment. I saw the coronary bypass machine which would artificially oxygenate all of my blood while my heart was stopped during surgery. Then, all the sudden, I heard three words – “Its a go.” The lungs had passed the visual check. And that was the last thing I remember. 

The next memory I had was waking up in the ICU the next morning when they took me off sedation. After 7 hours in surgery, I was out and ready to breathe on my own with my new lungs! I awoke to my family surrounding me and the respiratory therapist saying “you’re breathing on your own now, we’re ready to take out your breathing tube.” It came out quickly. I was breathing. I have to be honest though. It was not as glamorous and amazing as I thought it would be. It was rough. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was in so much pain and I did not feel like I could take a deep breath. I just hurt. But I was breathing. I was taking breaths with new lungs. Lungs that only a day ago had been in my donor’s body.

The first week of recovery was a lot harder than I expected. But three weeks out, I can say things are better than I expected. We’re still working on pain management, and I won’t be able to use my upper body normally for another month or two, but I’m breathing and I’m not on oxygen! Coming home has brought so many victories and excitements. Walking a mile without getting short of breath, feeling energy when I wake up again. Not lugging around oxygen everywhere and huffing and puffing. I can laugh without losing my breath! I can put my clothes on without taking breaks. Wow. 

Being home has also brought new anxieties. I realize that I no longer know what’s normal. I don’t know these lungs yet. I have a lot of congestion following transplant. They say it’s not uncommon, but it’s stressful not knowing how much congestion is OK. I’m so used to always needing to cough it out, and right now I can’t. I have anxiety about rejection. All my new medications. Transplant is not a cure. It’s trading one disease for another (a life of being immunosuppressed). But, wow is it worth it! 

I have had to stop my anxious thoughts and once again say, bow to Jesus. Once again surrender each day. Once again say my life is not my own, I am not promised tomorrow. My hope is not in these new lungs, but in Jesus’ blood over me giving me redemption and life through His sacrifice. Life is so precious. It’s short, but there are so many sweet, undeserving gifts God gives us along the way. 

If you have any questions about transplant, I’d love to share. Thank you for reading. 

If you are interested in learning more about becoming an organ donor, follow this link: organdonor.gov