Written by Natalie Griffin, Double Lung Recipient
Natalie Griffin is a 26 year old athlete and artist from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She received her double lung transplant on April 10, 2013 in St. Louis, MO.
When your life takes you down a path you could have never foreseen, it is humbling - and in a good way. It is a friendly reminder from the universe that while you may think you have the starring role in the movie of your life, you’re actually just an extra in the background, playing your part just as it was given to you... while the only people who can really even notice are the other extras that surround you.
Photo: Natalie with her organ donor's mom, Tammy
I was born with Cystic Fibrosis. Despite my diagnosis, I led a very active life throughout high school. I played basketball. I was the only girl on the ice hockey team. I graduated top of my class. I never slowed down because I didn’t have time to slow down. I figured I would be dead before I would ever see the day I turned 21. So I thought, "I better hurry up and get things accomplished."
Unless you were a close friend, you never even knew I was sick. I never complained about my month long IV stints or 12 hour sleep schedules. I didn't want to reveal (what I saw as) my weakness. Many people see a fragile thing as rare and beautiful simply because it is fragile. The last thing I wanted from anyone was their pity stares.
Once in college, my disease finally caught up with me. My body was tired of fighting itself. My life was slowly slipping away from me. Despite my constant inside-out pain from underoxygenation, I graduated with my bachelors degree and continued on into graduate school, all while working. Despite requiring oxygen 24/7, I would take it off when I was in class, to keep people out of my sad world. With only one semester to go, while working on my thesis, my body had finally decided it didn’t want to cling onto precious life anymore. I had to move to another state to be listed for a lung transplant.
I fell into depression; I felt socially isolated 8 hours away from home living in a one-bedroom apartment in one of the coldest winters St. Louis had seen in some time. I was coughing up blood daily. For the first time, I didn’t think I was going to make it through this. I was waking up after an hour of sleep because I could not breathe. Then I became fearful of sleep because I did not think I would wake. Finally, I admitted myself into the hospital thinking I could probably get more sleep there. "They won’t let me die in my sleep...right?" The admission process was just completed, with a PICC line placed, when I received the call. I had 20 minutes before I was in surgery. This was very unusual from what I had been told to expect. I had no time to process it though. It was 4 am. I only had enough time to call my mother and my father and cross my fingers I would make it out alive. That was it. Queue the epidural.
I woke up on the vent. I was alive. Despite having my chest cavity opened up and feeling like a Clydesdale horse had kicked me in the sternum, I felt BETTER than I did before the surgery. Those first breaths off the ventilator were indescribable. I could breathe. I was out of the hospital after 12 days, graduated with my Masters of Public Health one month (to the day) after my transplant, and ran my first 5k six months later. I played hockey again for the first time in eight years. I played basketball for the first time in ten years at the Transplant Games (and despite being unbelievably sore the next day, I still could play despite practicing in a decade). I had my life back and I wasn’t going to waste a day of it.
My Saving Grace
Who was my saving grace? I clearly was in the right place at the right time because those lungs were not meant for me. The heart surgeon brought them back to the hospital, hoping he could find someone to put them in, and they matched ME. The lungs were originally from Michigan, not in the organ donation network I was in. And because the original lung recovery surgeon didn't show up, the heart recovery surgeon took them back with him to the hospital hoping someone could use them, where I had just so happened to check into six short hours before. They just happened to match, and they just happened to be CMV negative (which is fairly rare). I just happened to luck out. These lungs were meant for someone else, and I got lucky. I wanted to know who made the choice to outlive themselves and give the selfless gift of life.
Death usually doesn’t concern us because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, I don't think anyone is bothered being dead. It wasn’t that I felt so much pain for my donor, but for my donor’s family. I had to meet them. I wanted to show them that at least one life was saved by their son's gift of life, and many others touched by their decision to donate his organs. After many letters, I finally received a reply. I flew to Michigan and spent Thanksgiving with my donor family this past year. It was the most rewarding experience on everyone’s end. They could still hear their son breathing in me and I gained a new family. To hear that I made them proud everyday was the most fulfilling sentence that had ever been spoken to me.
How Amazing it is to be Alive
You can’t experience being alive without realizing you have to die. But it’s just as impossible to realize you have to die without thinking how incredibly amazing it is to be alive. I travel somewhere new or experience something adventurous every month to experience what it means to be alive. Due to my volunteer efforts for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Donate Life Oklahoma, this year I have been chosen to be the adult ambassador for Oklahoma City’s Great Strides walk. I couldn’t be more honored. This is all I can do to honor my donor’s memory. I want to inspire others to live. That is how you Outlive Yourself. You inspire people to go out and LIVE.
Photo: Natalie with her fiance, Rick
I am getting married in April, on the 2-year anniversary that I awoke on the ventilator, breathing with Michael’s lungs in my chest. I am so excited that my donor family will be there, alongside all of my friends, to see all of the lives they have changed forever. An organ donor doesn’t just change the lives of those they donate to, but the lives of their family members and friends. Michael Outlived Himself through every breath I take and with every breath I take, I LIVE.
Register to be an organ donor, and then go out and inspire others to LIVE. Outlive Yourself.
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