How a Lung Transplant Brought Me Back from the Brink
Prevention & Treatment More than ten years after a double lung transplant (some 30-plus years in the making) Isabel Stenzel Byrnes opens up about her tale of survival, both before and after the operation.
Mediaplanet: What was the process like before receiving your transplant?
Isabel Byrnes: Having lived with cystic fibrosis for 32 years, I was breathless and congested all of my life. End-stage lung disease felt like true suffocation. I was terrified, exhausted and consumed by a primitive physical drive to survive.
I received the gift of donor lungs at the 11th hour, when I was in lung failure and on a ventilator. I had hours to live. Prior to being placed on a ventilator, I dozed in and out of a coma, and awoke up a few times exclaiming to my family, "There's going to be a miracle!" I experienced a near-death experience at this mysterious time, which reminded me that crossing over itself need not be feared. The bodily struggle prior to death was what I feared at that point. My family witnessed my decline and prayed for a miracle. They felt despair, helplessness, resignation—until the doctor came to them with the best five words of their lives: "We have lungs for Isabel."
MP: How did your family and friends help you prepare and cope with undergoing a transplant?
IB: My husband and twin sister were by my side throughout my transplant process. Since my sister also received a double lung transplant for cystic fibrosis (CF), she gave me tremendous hope and encouragement that my outcome could be like hers: she was athletic, working and volunteering.
"Organ donors are the highest form of humanity; through their own grief and devastating loss, they think of helping others."
My husband Andrew helped me with chest physical therapy several times a day, to keep my lungs stable so I could survive the waiting period. My parents expected me to endure another CF exacerbation, since I had experienced so many, and didn't expect me to decline so rapidly. My brother slept overnight in my hospital room, and soothed my panic attacks. My mother visited me from her home, many hours away, in the ICU, wearing all black, expecting and preparing for my death.
Transplantation doesn't just impact one person; the entire family is saved when a donor family says “yes” to organ donation. And it does take a team to prepare for a transplant. I'm so grateful for a loving team to support me through this process.
MP: What would you say to the donor or donor’s family if you had the opportunity?
IB: I would tell my donor that I thank him for being a tremendously mature, heroic and exceptional young man; for telling his mom he wanted to be a donor just two months before his accident so that he could help people. As an 18-year-old, just a few months shy of graduation, I feel so sad that he missed out on a full, long and joyful life. But I would tell his family my donor didn't die in vain; he died and saved at least three people so that he lives on in our bodies as well as in the memories of all who loved him.
Organ donors are the highest form of humanity; through their own grief and devastating loss, they think of helping others. It's mind-blowing. Now, my mantra that I learned from another transplant friend is: "Live like your donor is watching." Instead of just verbal thank you's I want to put my gratitude into action, and dedicate every action I can take—swimming, hiking, playing the bagpipes, competing at the Transplant Games, working as a social worker, spending time with family—to my donor family.