A Body and Its New Lungs: A Love Story
It’s been seven months since my mom, Holly, had a double-lung transplant. She and the miracle organs that have been stitched within her are going strong. But their relationship hasn’t been perfect. My mom’s body and her new lungs each brought their own baggage to the relationship.
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis did a number on my mom’s body, which the lungs started healing with their first breath together. It seemed like love at first sight.
The first two weeks after the transplant were full of milestones we weren’t sure we’d ever see. She was walking 12 hours after coming out of the operating room. On day two, she spent an hour breathing without the ventilator, and on day four she was able to eat real food. She hadn’t breathed unassisted or eaten anything since she was admitted to the ICU three months prior.
Everything went better than planned in the first few weeks after my mom and her donated lungs tied the knot. Well, many knots. Many sutures are involved in a double-lung transplant! They were released from the hospital after only 13 days.
Even though they made a lifelong commitment before they met, moving in together took some getting used to. They had to relearn how to get around a home, use stairs, stand up, get dressed, and bathe. They had to take and process handfuls of pills twice a day. These were challenges that neither had faced before their union, but they learned together.
They ventured outside and breathed fresh air. My mom walked her new lungs down the block and back. Every day they were able to go farther than the last.
As her body adapted to new lungs, the lungs started having commitment issues. They weren’t filing for divorce, but they were doing some pretty shady stuff on the side. My mom’s body was so obsessed with the lungs that it didn’t raise a lot of red flags when her lungs started to misbehave.
Two weeks after my mom went home, we took a trip to the emergency room that turned into a month-long stay in the cardiovascular-thoracic unit. She never had a fever and didn’t feel any more exhausted or ill than was to be expected after such an ordeal. But her heart was screaming that the lungs were being traitorous. One night, when she struggled to slow her breathing and her pulse was unreadable, we knew her lungs might be getting cold feet.
The transplant team descended upon us, and we learned that the lungs had brought baggage of their own to the relationship: They carried Streptococcus mitis and had introduced these sneaky bacteria to my mom’s immunosuppressed body. The bacterial infection was like a creepy stalker watching her every move. It spread to many systems and was trying to break up the happy couple before they had a chance to take a honeymoon.
The transplant team joined a cardiologist, nephrologist, and infectious disease specialist to tackle the infection and its comorbidities. Typical of any relationship under stress, the lungs and heart needed space. There was a buildup of fluid in the pleural space that was putting pressure on them. My mom got three more chest tube scars to add to her collection.
Her heart, lungs, and kidneys slowly recovered from the rage of the infection, but the fluid persisted. At last, the doctors decided that my mom would do better to risk fluid buildup at home than to risk a hospital-borne infection while waiting for the drainage to stop. Her body and lungs have gotten along very well ever since.
They have gone on long walks on the beach and had nice dinner dates. And my mom’s friends and family love her new lungs. We can’t help but see how great they are together.
My mom and her new lungs have had an amazing honeymoon stage, and did things over the summer that her diseased lungs had made impossible. Friends came to visit and congratulate the happy couple. Little annoyances and problems seemed trivial in the wake of such hardship.
We will never stop being amazed by and grateful for the transplant. Part of what makes it so miraculous is that it has allowed my mom to return to a mostly normal life. Over the past year, we have experienced the deepest depths and the highest highs. The gradual return toward equilibrium is something miraculous in itself, but I must admit that it is a bit sad to see the honeymoon phase come to a close.
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