– All I need is the air that I breathe ... – Air Supply
Tricia Blasdell is breathing a whole lot easier these days.
The 58-year-old Brookings woman has a new pair of lungs, harvested from the body of a young man who died in a car accident in Santa Barbara, Calif., earlier this year.
Blasdell can vacuum her house, shower by herself, work in the garden and dance to her heart’s delight.
“It’s wonderful, just wonderful,” she said.
It wasn’t always this way.
Blasdell has a family history of chronic obstructive pulonary disease – a chronic condition that never improves. Exacerbating that was that she grew up on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley – “the land of poison air” she calls it – hauling hay, working cattle and other dusty farm chores.
She moved to Brookings 10 years ago and was put on oxygen after a serious bout of bronchitis.
That went on for nine years.
“It got to the point where taking a shower would take me almost an hour,” she said. “I couldn’t go from here to the door – what, 10, 15 feet? – without leaning on the counter; it was that bad.”
“She was real active,” her husband, Steve, said. “And she got that bronchitis and it slammed her down. It was rough, a young person going around town carrying an oxygen tank.”
She’s had to endure her share of stairs – and stares.
Blasdell was in a restaurant when a man approached her and asked if she smoked, and if so, she’d brought her condition on herself.
At a casino, a woman took a drag off her cigarette and blew the smoke into Blasdell’s face.
To add insult to injury, her pulmonologist in Medford told her they’d done everything they could and she should research a double-lung transplant.
She credits three people from cardio-pulmonary services at Curry General Hospital – Sherry Dye, Randy Stout and Chelle Buffington– for saving her life. During one test, Buffington asked why Blasdell wasn’t in respiratory therapy.
That was the turning point.
“I didn’t know anything about it; I’d never heard of it,” Blasdell said. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s here, and there are so many people here who need it.”
She began that therapy last fall while she and Steve researched lung transplant opportunities at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.
“They don’t accept everyone,” Steve said. “They were pleased as punch because she’d had respiratory therapy.”
But there are hoops through which to jump.
“There are two criteria,” Steve said. “You have to be sick enough to need it, and healthy enough to survive the surgery.”
Blasdell’s blood-oxygen saturation hovered around 89 percent when idle, dipped to 78 percent when she moved around and 60 percent when more active. A healthy person’s saturation point is considered good at 95 percent or higher. And her lung capacity was down to about 27 percent.
The evaluation took a week.
“And the doctors said, ‘In six months you are either going to be bedridden and we can’t operate, or you will not be here. In my professional opinion, you will not be here.”
Blasdell said she was never scared.
“I knew Jesus was there with me,” she said. “We prayed about it a lot.”
“When they said that in their estimation she wouldn’t be here, it makes the decision process pretty easy,” Steve added.
In January, she was admitted to the intensive care unit.
Steve said the couple expected to wait eight to nine months to find a compatible donor – not an easy endeavor for someone who has the rarest blood type, O-negative.
But four days later, doctors announced they’d found a donor and prepped her for surgery.
“That young man is our hero,” Steve said.
Surgery lasted six-and-a-half hours. Shortly afterward, doctors took her off the ventilator. She spent 14 days in the hospital –ß half the time of a typical patient.
“The doctors were calling me a superstar,” she said. “And it was weird. I’d reach for my oxygen (tubes) and they weren’t there, and I’d freak out. Then I’d remember, ‘Oh, yeah. I don’t need them now.’”
It’s been almost six months now, and she’s blazing through the milestones: surviving the surgery, getting through the first three months when the body is most likely to reject the new organ and now, coming up on six months, thinking about what she might write in a letter to the family of the young man who died and whose family agreed to donate his lungs.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Steve said. “Whoever that young man was, he’s our hero.”
Her life has changed in many ways.
Two large notebooks, emblazoned with the excerpt from the band Air Supply, are filled with information about how she must live her new life.
She can go to restaurants, as long as she’s seated in wide-open areas. She must wear a mask in public for the next four-plus years. She takes 15 medications in the morning, seven others at night and doctors change dosages and prescriptions at a moment’s notice.
She can’t dig in the dirt in the garden and can never again eat from a buffet or salad bar for all the germs inherent in them. Her steaks must be prepared well-done, she can’t swim in a lake or river – even the family dog, Peepers, doesn’t shed.
It’s a small price to pay for the ease with which she can breathe today.
“I not taking anything for granted,” she said. “Anything at all.”
There are still evaluations ahead but, soon, she’ll only have to go to Palo Alto once a year.
She’s gaining strength in her legs, but has been able to get out shopping, walking along the harbor and on the beach and dancing.
“I have a 58-year-old body with a 22-year-old set of lungs,” she said. “I’m ready to rock.”