How sweet it is: Cumberland woman breathes freely with new pair of lungs
CUMBERLAND — Last month Kristy Smith took the sweetest breath of air she’s ever enjoyed.
The 33-year-old Cumberland woman had finally become fully conscious after spending a month and a half in a drug-induced coma, plus the weeks of heavy sedation that followed. Waking up at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, she inhaled and realized to her amazement that for the first time in years she could do what many people take for granted: breathe freely.
Smith’s struggle with primary pulmonary hypertension began when she was 26. According to emedicine.com, the disease is rare and identified by increased pulmonary artery pressure without an apparent cause. Smith’s mother died of it in her early 50s, and her brother has it as well.
“It causes the right side of the heart to pump more because of the need for the oxygenated blood to get through the body,” which can cause enlargement of that side and added pressure on the lungs, Smith said last week.
“Eventually it leads to heart failure or lungs failing,” she said.
As her legs became puffy and her shortness of breath got to the point that she couldn’t walk outside to her truck without nearly passing out, Smith knew she was experiencing symptoms beyond those associated with a lack of exercise or smoking.
Still, she continued her job with Northeast Air at the Portland International Jetport.
Later, a battery of medical tests confirmed she had the same disease as her mother. Knowing her mother succumbed to the disease after two years, Smith thought she only had that much time as well.
“They told us that we wouldn’t get it because they said it usually skips generations,” Smith said, “but they think because she had multiple births at the same time, that may have triggered it to come out.”
Smith’s brother, Robert – born with her in a set of triplets – takes Flolan through a catheter on the left hand side of his chest to successfully treat the high blood pressure leading to the disease. Smith herself had to move from oral medication to Flolan early last year, undergoing increased doses.
Last summer her health began to plummet.
“If it wasn’t for my doctor, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said, “because he suggested I go to the Cleveland Clinic.”
Smith traveled to the clinic for a few days in January, undergoing tests to determine whether she could stand a lung transplant and to find her a matching donor.
“In February is when I really went downhill,” she said, adding that she was at Maine Medical Center for about two weeks before being flown to Cleveland on Feb. 28.
Smith was put into a drug-induced coma in early March. By April she was hooked up to the to machine to assist her failing lungs.
“They only had me hooked up to it for a couple days,” she said. “The longer you’re on it, your blood will actually reject the oxygen through this machine eventually.”
Two days later, by what Smith considers a miracle, a set of lungs became available. She went into surgery April 9. She was eventually brought out of the coma, but remained heavily sedated.
“It was in the beginning of May when I actually woke up,” she said.
And Smith could finally breathe on her own.
“When I took that first breath, it was amazing,” she said.
Smith said it's unfortunate that someone else has to die for a person to get the lungs, kidneys or heart they need. Not enough people have volunteered, though, to donate those vital organs after they have died, she noted.
“There’s a desperate need for donors,” Smith said.
Smith is fortunate. Her new lungs are a close match, so much so that she is on minimal anti-rejection drugs. After undergoing physical therapy, she returned home June 1, having feared earlier that she never would.
“When my father came out to see me, before they put me under the heavy sedation, he had the same look in his eyes that he had the night my mom passed away,” Smith said. “And I was thinking, I’m never going to see Maine again.”
She's now able to walk up and down her driveway without breathing heavily. She finds the experience mind-blowing.
“It’s a blessing,” Smith said. “Without the donor saying, ‘yes, I want to be a donor,’ I wouldn’t be here. … I’m not a great person. I don’t do anything amazing. I’m not anyone special. I’m just a normal, average person. And to be given that chance for a second life, basically, and to take that first breath, you view things totally different afterwards. You learn to take one day as it comes and enjoy it.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.