Breathing easy after lung transplant

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 29, 2013 09:06 pm

Tricia Blasdell, center with glass of wine, is surrounded by family and friends during a party in her honor. Submitted photo
Tricia Blasdell, center with glass of wine, is surrounded by family and friends during a party in her honor. Submitted photo
Spirits were soaring at Tricia Blasdell’s house Saturday, as throngs of friends, family and neighbors stopped by to listen to her talk, laugh and socialize.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the 59-year-old Brookings woman couldn’t do those things — and they were only deemed possible by surgeons who removed both of her lungs and transplanted into her body the lungs of a 22-year-old man.

“She’s back!,” exclaimed Tricia’s daughter, Kim White of Brookings. “It’s a miracle. I cherish every day.”

Saturday, the days totalled 365, and Tricia spent four hours during an open house greeting guests, talking about her recovery and laughing.

“I knew she’d make it,” said White’s daughter, Aleia, 15. “It’ll all turn out better. This is a milestone. She made it to a year — some don’t. I’m happy for her.”

Indeed the odds were long.

Tricia has a family history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — a 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 doing 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.

She couldn’t walk across a room, much less, up stairs. It took more than an hour to take a shower. Talking was exhausting. And all her favorite activities — hosting dinner parties, dancing, gardening — were put on hold, possibly forever.

She began respiratory therapy while she and her husband, Steve, researched lung transplant opportunities at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

Among the numerous criteria is that one must be sick enough to justify such a risky procedure — and strong enough to survive it.

She underwent the surgery that would save her life, despite all the strict requirements placed upon her. Her thick notebook binders remind the family of all she’s going through: the medications, the twice-monthly doctors visits, the immobility and frustration.

She contracted pneumonia in July, when she almost died en route to the hospital in a helicopter. And again in August, when her blood chemicals got out of balance.

She’s blazed through the milestones in the past year: surviving the surgery, getting through the first three months when the body is most likely to reject the new organ and now, a year later, thinking about writing a letter to the family of the young man who died and whose family agreed to donate his lungs.

“It’s going great,” she said. “I can fly, now. I can dance, I can play — I can almost run. And I blew a 109 (percent breath strength) last week. Bet you can’t do that. It’s liberating.”

The Blasdell’s son, Steve, said he, too, was scared.

“You just ride it out,” he said of the past year. “You’re powerless. You just have to have faith everything will turn out. She’s like night and day; it’s amazing. She’s a strong lady.”

Aleia said it’s been a learning experience for everyone. She’s learned the importance of never smoking. They’ve learned the importance of washing their hands — frequently. The need for flu shots and “those wipey things when you’re shopping,” Steve said.

He has also learned the value of being an organ donor.

“I never wanted to be an organ donor, and now I’m encouraging everyone alive to do it,” he said. “We don’t need those parts when we’re gone anyway.”

They’ve all learned that with faith, hope and strength, miracles can happen, Aleia said.

“This is wonderful,” Steve said. “It is a monumental day. It’s been an extremely long year, with all the trips we had to make — every two weeks, then every month. Three unexpected trips. I told her we don’t live in Brookings anymore; we just visit.”

“She looks so damn good,” said Betty Mears, of Brookings, a long-time family friend. “It was hair-raising those first four, five months. Every time she had to go back in, I’d go nuts; I’d just freak.”

Tricia can no longer eat from a buffet line, nor garden lest she risk the chance of inhaling anything that might make her sick. If she vacuums, it is with mask and gloves. She’ll wear that same mask in public places for the next five years.

But the options are open now; the family’s thinking of taking a cruise to Mexico, or a trip to Hawaii.

“I might even try walking in the sand here pretty soon,” she said. “My lungs are 22 years old; that makes me 37!”

“Every day’s a blessing for us,” Steve said. “Every day is a blessing.”