Wed, Aug 2, 2023 12:40 PM

A second chance at life


Tessa Jaine

Blenheim woman Lisa Erikson is celebrating ten years since she underwent a double lung transplant. She talks to Paula Hulburt about her second chance at life.

The silver-lidded pot of moisturiser sat undisturbed on her dresser, its shiny promise of youth and vitality almost mocking in its absurdity.

At 29 years old, Lisa Erickson was exhausted. Every muscle ached as she fought for breath. The simple task of using a face cream was beyond her.

In and out, in and out, her chest heaved, the oxygen tube in her nose slipping out as she fought tears.

Catching her reflection, a seemingly older version of herself stared back. Her blonde hair stood out in sharp contrast to her pale face and lips hued in blue.

Talking to Lisa today, it is hard to imagine the vivacious mother of one has ever been sick, yet alone on the verge of death. She is all smiles, her eyes bright, her skin clear and her excitement for life is palpable.

It is a chance she will always be grateful for, she explains with a smile, but there is sadness too as Lisa marks ten years since she underwent the double lung transplant that saved her life.

“On the plane up there [to Auckland Hospital] all I could think of was that someone was going through the most horrific heartbreak."

“I can’t not think of the donor every day, I have to take the pills and it’s a reminder twice a day. I wish they knew how much I appreciate them and love them.”

For former midwife Lisa, the donor and their family live alongside her every day as she embraces her second chance at life. It is a responsibility she never forgets.

“Everything felt so amazing. I remember thinking ‘wow, so this is what it’s like to really live.’”

New Zealand’s official donor agency Organ Donation New Zealand says organ donation is only possible when a person is on a ventilator in an intensive care unit (ICU), usually with severe brain damage. Less than 1 per cent of all deaths happen this way. In 2013 when Lisa underwent her double transplant, there were 36 lung donors.

Lisa’s transplant journey began as an undiagnosed lung condition, worsened following emergency surgery. It stealthily robbed her, not just of her ability to oxygenate her blood but caused serious heart issues, too.

As she pauses to gather her thoughts, a myriad of feelings flicker. How close she came to death is still something she’s coming to terms with even now.

Getting to this point was not just a physical battle, Lisa explains, but an emotional one, too.

“It was a battle to get a diagnosis. I saw a cardiologist and respiratory specialist, but no one was listening. In fact, one specialist told me it was in my head and that I had to learn not to hyperventilate. By this stage I was so sick, but started to think ‘was it all in my head?’”

The breathlessness began shortly after the birth of Lisa’s daughter Miriana, affectionately known as Miri. Suffering from severe pre-eclampsia, Lisa had emergency surgery at Christchurch Hospital at 34 weeks into her pregnancy.

Leaving a tangle of hospital sheets in her wake as she wobbled to her feet, Lisa remembers gazing at her daughter properly for the first time. She took in her dark eyelashes and watched as one tiny pink hand unfurled. Her heart filled with love in what was to be one of the last moments of true peace Lisa had for the next four years.

“I started getting breathless on walking and then became breathless at rest,” she remembers. Plagued with dizzy spells and visual disturbances, Lisa says she had felt “truly awful.” Trying to carry out the daily tasks of being a mum became harder and harder as the months became years.

Every day was a hard slog for the young mum who by now relied on oxygen 24 hours a day. A small trundler carrying a cannister of oxygen went with her everywhere.

At yet another medical appointment, this time for an ultrasound of her heart, Lisa expected to again hear there was nothing wrong. But as her body started to shut down, there was no escaping how ill she truly was.

“The specialist came out… he said he owed me an apology and that I was very sick and needed to go to the emergency department right away.”

“I said no. I told him I had to go home and see Miri first. Everyone had ignored me so I didn’t think it could be that serious. I rocked up at ED with my bags and the letter and they were waiting for me.”

When staff broke the news to Lisa that she was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, they told her it was a rare type of the disease. There was no cure.

“I had so many questions. Was I going to be stuck like this for the rest of my life?” she reflects. A raft of tests followed, and Lisa began a grueling treatment regime.

Spending weeks at a time in Christchurch Hospital, Lisa clung onto thoughts of her daughter. “She used to draw me pictures,” Lisa smiles. “She doesn’t remember, but I know it’s shaped the young woman she is today.”

Lisa is thankful to her donor for gifting her with many more years to spend with her daughter.

Then came the day doctors told her the results of her latest tests – she would die without a transplant.

With a midpoint survival rate after diagnosis of just 84 days, Lisa grappled to come to terms with the potentially terminal diagnosis.

“It was devastating and there was a grieving process. I spent 48 hours thinking ‘woe is me’.”

Sitting on a bench bathed in sunshine outside Christchurch Hospital, Lisa watched people jogging inHagley Park, frustration and anger threatened tears.

“I thought ‘why me?’ Then someone said something that really touched me, they said ‘why not you?’”

Hearing she needed a double lung transplant to save her life was also a relief, Lisa explains. She headed to Auckland Hospital to begin the process. The survival rate for a lung transplant is 60 per cent at five years.

“The specialist asked me ‘did i know how sick I was?’ She pushed a box of tissues over to me and began to talk about lung transplants. I was so relieved; this could mean the end of my misery. I knew she was offering me some peace.

“I was excited for the next stage. I was sick of being poked and prodded. I knew I had to dig, dig deep. I had to be there to raise Miri, failure was not an option.”

Returning to Blenheim where she now lived to be closer to her supportive parents in the town where she grew up, Lisa waited for the call to come. With a rare B Positive blood type, which only 9 per cent of the New Zealand population have, she readied herself for a long wait.

But then, a miracle, just ten days after Lisa was officially put on the active transplant waiting list, a recipient, with the same blood type, had been found.

In true organised fashion, Lisa was ready to go. A bag sat ready by the front door and carefully curated lists were already written to help family and friends know what had to be done.

“I was prepared for my new life,” she laughs, “It gave me something to focus on. I felt so peaceful, one hundred per cent peaceful. There was no doubt that I
wouldn’t wake up.”

Going into surgery on 13 June, 2013, Lisa’s 12-hour transplant was officially completed at 1.28pm on 14 June. As the sun stretched its midday rays over
the city, Lisa’s friends and family got the news the surgery had been a success.

The kindness and support of her family and friends still means the world to her, she says. The New Zealand Organ Donation Centre asked Lisa to talk to other transplant patients about her experience, this she happily does. She also talks regularly to hospital staff in Marlborough and further afield.

“The survivor guilt is insane, but all the while there is a deep sense of gratitude to the donor and her family. Very quickly everything felt totally different, the world felt softer. I felt reborn, I guess.”

Picking up her mobile phone, Lisa glances at the time and gets up in a rush of farewells and smiles. A cheery wave and she’s gone, stepping out into the
winter sunshine and the gift of another day.

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