Talk about a phone call that can change your life -- mine came at 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1998.
"We've got a perfect set of lungs for you," a cheerful voice told me. After two and a half years on the waiting list, it was time for my double-lung transplant. Much to my surprise, I felt neither nervous nor scared as Dave, my wonderful husband, and I got out of bed and prepared to go to the hospital.
I had reached this unusual turning point after a lifetime of lung problems caused by a very rare genetic flaw that rendered the ciliia in my body immotile. Over the years, the resulting secondary condition, called bronchiectasis, slowly scarred my lungs until I was forced to rely on oxygen in 1995. At that point, a lung transplant was my only hope.
Lung transplantation has come a long way since 1983, when Dr. Joel Cooper performed the first successful single-lung transplant in Toronto. Prior to 1983, only two recipients lived longer than a month. Today, about 50 percent of lung-transplant recipients live for five years.
I was only the fourth patient out of 399 lung transplants in St. Louis to experience a toxic reaction to Cyclosporin, one of the immunosuppressants that recipients take for the rest of their lives to ward off rejection. The first two died, and the priest was ready to administer the last rites to the third, George, when doctors pulled him through. I met George upon my arrival in St. Louis, never dreaming that we would share an unusual journey and that my life would be predicated upon his survival.
During a particularly long stretch of days on the ventilator, my only goal in life was to be able to drink a cool glass of iced tea in a cafe. Since my recovery, I've had some glorious glasses of iced tea, I've danced at four weddings, and even hit a few decent tennis shots. I'm still hoping to increase my lung capacity, but I revel in the fact that it is now 67 percent rather than 16 percent. Throughout our lives, many of us learn the same lesson over and over: Think about tomorrow's plans, but focus on today's offerings.
In the years before my transplant, I kept a list of things I wanted to do once I could breathe without supplemental oxygen. The activities ranged from taking ballroom dancing lessons to shopping without an oxygen tank at my side.
When I returned home after seven months in St. Louis, I met one of these goals by taking our dog, Barnaby, for a walk in the park. During our stroll, a beautiful rainbow appeared on the horizon. It was a magnificent symbol of joy and rebirth after all the clouds and pain.
Today, more than 65,000 people are waiting for organs. Unfortunately, the donation rate has not kept pace with the greatly increased need, and 10 people die every day while waiting for that gift of life.
If you sign a donor card or your license and tell your family of your wishes, you may be able to give others an indescribable second chance at life. The organ and tissue donations from one person alone can save the lives of seven people and improve the quality of life of over 50 others. What a wonderful legacy.
Thank you to my donor family for making a compassionate decision that saved my life. By following their example, each of us may have the opportunity to give others a second chance. I am seeking a world wherein no one has to die on the waiting list due to a low organ donation rate. That is my new goal in life.
HOLLY HAHN-BAKER lives in Buffalo.
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