Inspirations: Transplanted Lung, Enduring Spirit

December 1, 1996

After experiencing breathing difficulties, I went to see my doctor in 1989. My doctor took some tests and determined that I was suffering from a progressive lung disease called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. The rare disease, which is genetic in origin, is characterized by the lack of a special blood protein that normally helps protect against lung tissue breakdown.

The doctor told me that I was a candidate for a lung transplant. I received approval from Stanford University Hospital for the operation, but I decided to hold off. The operation is risky. Only 75 percent of patients survive the surgery, and only two-thirds are still alive a year later.

My condition at the time didn't seem bad enough to make it worth the risk.

Lots of Drive

By the fall of 1994, my lung capacity had deteriorated to the point where I could walk only about 30 feet without resting. I was starting to get frequent respiratory infections, which was a bad sign. If my health declined too much, the doctors would stop considering me for a transplant. I'd become so weak I was no longer able to handle simple household tasks. My husband, Phil, had long since taken over for me.

I never considered quitting work. One reason is that I have a lot of drive, and I love my job. Besides, I thought it was healthy for me to continue. But because of my physical limitations, I could work only with assistance from Phil, who ran errands for me, and a secretary. I referred buyers or worked cooperatively with other salespeople. My office mates were thoughtful and considerate and the support staff helpful. My production continued at an increasing level each year. And I received company and association awards for production.

Some of my clients were aware of my medical condition. I found their patience, consideration, and loyalty inspiring.

In January 1995, I again applied for the operation and was approved for a single-lung transplant. Because of the large number of people requiring lung transplants and the scarce supply of available organs, hospitals today often transplant only one lung.

Nationally, the average wait for a lung is 18 months. Less than six months after I went on the waiting list, I received a 6 a.m. telephone call from my doctor. After being assured that I felt wonderful, with no symptoms or illness, the doctor asked, “How's today for a new lung?”

Incredible Gift

I called my brothers and my children, canceled business and social engagements, and arrived at the hospital by 8:30 a.m. A transplant nurse flew to Southern California to get the lung. I learned the donor was a young wife and mother who had been hit by a truck.

As I moved through the preoperation process, I felt no fear. There were tears, however, as I was about to leave Phil to enter the operating room. After all, he had been my lifetime companion, and I was going off on a journey by myself.

The surgery went very well. By evening I was conscious and alert enough to write with my finger ''I love you'' on each family member's palm. At 3 a.m. the doctors removed me from the respirator and allowed me to breathe on my own with my new lung.

The doctors were astonished at my rapid recovery. Within 24 hours I was making telephone calls to clients from the intensive care unit. Three weeks later I was back in the office, at least part of the day.

I'm thankful for the incredible gift I received, a new lung, freely given by a total stranger. This gift has made an enormous difference in my life. I feel stronger and healthier today than I have in years.

The experience has taught me the importance of living in the present, letting go of the past, and living life intentionally. Chronic illness and disability are wake-up calls, forcing us to look at our priorities. Love and loyalty, family and friendships, faith, service, and perseverance are the values that drive my life.

Anne Palen, GRI, is a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Real Estate, San Mateo, Calif. In her spare time she works as a volunteer speaker for the California Transplant Donor Network.

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