I remember getting the call from my mom on Valentine's Day way back in 2001: "They have a set of lungs for your sister! She's being prepped for surgery now ... you need to get here as soon as you can." My mother's voice was raspy and breathless. She alternated between nervous excitement and dark trepidation. I booked a flight for Javi and I on the next flight from Boston to Raleigh.
Nine years ago. I wasn't able to talk with my baby sister before the operation. A team of skilled surgeons spent long hours removing her 20-year-old lungs and replacing them with a set of fresh, pink, young ones. Everyone knew Ashley needed that transplant. She and our mother fought for it with every ounce of strength they could muster, despite being told in many different ways that the transplant team didn't consider Ashley a worthy candidate. The held on and dug in and fought for my sister's right to live.
On that operating table nine years ago, surgeons removed two organs that were once healthy but had become so ravaged by the infections that are part and parcel of Cystic Fibrosis that they looked more like tiny, hard, shriveled lumps. The surgical team exhaled and remarked that those lungs, those diseased and worn-out lungs, had barely any life in them. They raised their eyebrows at the amazing miracle of transplantation -- the one thing that would keep this girl alive. My sister would've died within months, they realized once they saw those little lungs. Weeks even.
No one saw it coming. Ashley just happened to be in the hospital recovering from the flu and was on the same round of antibiotics and fluids that she would've needed to prepare for a transplant. An unknown tragedy befell another family in the world, and that family gave our family the gift of two beautifully healthy lungs. It was a chain reaction, a complicated string of grief and circumstance and right-place-right-time, and at the end of it, my sister was alive and looking down an amazingly long road of living.
My sister has chosen not to reach out to her donor's family, but she thanks them every day for finding the strength to transform their personal tragedy into a miracle for so many others. All told, six people received organs that night. Today, Ashley is the only one left to remember the beauty and magic of that Valentine's day night, but she tells her story with pride and humility and hope for the future.
The past nine years have been good to her. She's traveled to nearly every continent on the planet. She's studied in England, welcomed another nephew and her first niece, loved and lost and loved again. She's lived. She's breathed deeply into those healthy lungs and lived. I know she's proud of how she's carried these lungs in the world. I am proud of her, too.
Here's to another long nine years with this precious gift. Happy anniversary little sister!