When my mom, Holly, was hospitalized to wait for a double-lung transplant, I needed to talk to a survivor. I longed to hear from someone who had been through it and was living, breathing proof that surviving was possible.
About a year before my mom was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), I had asked a photography question in The Rising Tide Society, an online community of creative entrepreneurs. Of all the people who offered advice that day, one stood out in particular. As I browsed Kathleen Sheffer’s gallery, I was surprised to find a collection of photographs documenting her heart-lung transplant nestled among her event photography and portraits. She was about my age, and her story and images hit me hard, even before I knew that lung transplant would be part of my life.
I followed Kathleen on Instagram (go follow her — she is seriously talented) and kept tabs on her recovery when she shared those details of her life. When Life Flight took my mom to the ICU at the University of California, San Francisco, Kathleen came to my mind. I didn’t expect much to come of it, but I had to reach out. I messaged her late one night on Instagram, explaining how I’d initially discovered her and what was going on with my mom’s health.
The next morning, I awoke to a long response in which Kathleen offered optimism, advice, and her phone number, along with an invitation to meet up and talk. I couldn’t believe how responsive and open she was to helping a stranger through a trauma. I also couldn’t believe that, of all the places in the world, this special person lived mere blocks from where my dad and I were staying.
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We volleyed a few more messages back and forth over the following days. The doctors were doing everything they could to stabilize my mom and get her healthy enough to get on the list for a transplant. I wanted to meet up with Kathleen, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the ICU.
A week later, things were still chaotic, but Kathleen said she’d be holed up in a café near the hospital for several hours the next day. My dad and I detoured there and Kathleen greeted us with hugs. She bought us coffee and told us about her transplant experience. She was honest and realistic, but in a way that reassured rather than scared me.
She told us how she had hiked Half Dome — elevation 8,844 feet — the previous summer. It was a celebratory feat after a lifetime of confinement below 4,000 feet due to pulmonary hypertension. She went skiing, rock climbing, and biking. She continued to build her photography business — which she made look easy as a 25-year-old with health challenges.
Seeing that this person, who had gone through such an extreme procedure to treat a chronic, life-threatening illness, was now thriving lifted our spirits and gave us much-needed hope.
Before we even got to the ICU, Kathleen texted me again: “I’m so sorry your family is part of this world now, but I’m also grateful that you are and that I know you. I can tell you are my people and we will be long term friends. That’s aggressive, ‘be my best friend,’ but life is short, so…”
I don’t believe in coincidences, but I do believe in balance. I’d had three years of continuous hardship and loss before IPF tried to take my mom, but serendipity created this magical friendship that leveled the scales in one motion.
Kathleen helped me get through the wait for my mom’s new lungs, and was a major support when I was living in San Francisco for three months after the transplant. She let me tag along on a couple of her photography jobs, taught me a lot about running a business, and helped me gain confidence behind the camera. Oh, and she set me up with the interview that led to this column. Her column for Pulmonary Hypertension News is full of well-crafted narratives, like this one about our friendship.
I keep saying “thank you,” but it never feels like enough. She’ll reply with things like, “It feels good to pay back some of the kindness that was shown to me during my transplant.” (Cue my eye roll.) But this last week I have started to understand her sentiment. A friend’s young relative suddenly developed cardiomyopathy and is currently in the hospital awaiting a heart transplant.
When I heard this news, my first reaction was a reflection of Kathleen’s: “Give my number to your whole family; they can call me whenever they want.” Because I truly hope that I can repay some of the kindness that was shown to me during my mom’s transplant.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.