Christina's second chance
Saturday, April 5 began like most other mornings for 22-year-old cystic fibrosis patient Christina Queen, until she received a phone call from one of her doctors in Chapel Hill that changed her life.
Christina was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was 1 year old, after doctors realized her symptoms were not those of pneumonia like they initially thought. Christina has resided in Mooresboro with her grandmother, Lois Johnston, who has helped take care of Christina since she was 10 years old.
Cystic fibrosis is an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 30,000 children and adults in the United States. A defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and obstructs the pancreas, stopping natural enzymes from helping the body break down and absorb food.
After a visit with her cystic fibrosis doctor last December, Christina found out only a fourth of her lungs were working properly. For the past several months she was on oxygen 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Christina was placed on the active list for a double lung transplant on Dec. 13, 2013.
"I had to take several tests to get on the active list for a lung transplant," she said. "I had to see a dentist, get my ears checked, have an EKG test, a swallow test, ultrasound, pap smear...the list goes on."
After nearly three and a half months on the transplant list, Christina's cell phone rang on April 5 with good news.
Receiving the good news
Christina was at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill that Saturday afternoon with her team of cystic fibrosis doctors, receiving a checkup for her three weeks course of antibiotics, when a nurse came into her room and said Christina had an offer for a set of lungs.
"I was like, are you serious?" Christina said. "At the time I was on my laptop and texting, and the first thing I did was call my family and shared the good news with everybody."
What followed the good news was a mixture of emotions for Christina.
"I didn't know how to act. I cried, screamed and was excited and nervous all at the same time," she said. "That was my first time they had told me that I had an offer for some lungs. Most people wait a long time on the list, like six months to a year, so I was very lucky."
Christina's doctors began prepping her for surgery the next morning with a series of tests and blood work. Normally the doctors perform a dry run with the new lungs to determine whether the lungs are a match, but Christina was a perfect fit.
"Some people match the first time, while others have to wait for a more compatible set of lungs," she said.
Christina was scheduled to be in the operating holding room at UNC Hospital at 1:15 a.m. on Sunday, April 6.
"It was so hard to get some sleep that night (April 5), and it was such a long night," she said. "I knew once I got to the holding area that it was going to be a waiting game from there. But my fiancé (Dazel Morrow) was with me the whole time and the doctors, surgeon and anesthetist kept me informed of what was going on."
While waiting in the holding room, Christina dozed off to sleep and woke up around 6 a.m. to the news that her surgery was ready. She entered surgery for her double lung transplant at 7:30 a.m. and after about nine hours, doctors successfully completed the transplant and Christina emerged from the operating room.
Following the surgery, she spent three days in the hospital's intensive care unit to ensure her body accepted the new set of lungs.
The next morning the doctors took Christina off her ventilator and she was breathing on her own. She began getting the four tubes in her chest removed five days after surgery, and was moved to the hospital's transplant recovery floor where she stayed for two weeks.
"I have recovered so well and all the doctors, nurses and my surgeon can't believe at how well I am doing and how quick my recovery has been," she said. "They said my color looks good and you can't even tell I had a transplant."
A challenging road ahead
Christina was able to leave UNC Hospital on Monday, April 21 and will remain in the Chapel Hill area for three months to attend frequent checkups. Her fiancé and grandmother will take turns traveling back and forth between Mooresboro and Chapel Hill to stay with Christina.
Prior to her double lung transplant, on a typical day Christina would wake up and begin her breathing treatments — four in the morning, two during the afternoon and four at night before going to sleep.
She then took nearly 30 pills every day, consisting of vitamins, heartburn pills, enzymes to help with digestion and various others. She was also required to take insulin regularly for her diabetes, an effect of the cystic fibrosis.
Additionally, to help her body receive nourishment as she slept, doctors placed a feeding tube in Christina's stomach. In the past, she needed three surgeries on her sinuses and a port placed into her chest three different times to help with receiving her antibiotics.
The majority of Christina's travels involved appointments and tests around North Carolina including attending pulmonary rehab three times a week at Rutherford Regional Medical Center; having blood drawn in Shelby every two weeks; seeing her team of diabetes doctors in Asheville on occasion; and visiting with her cystic fibrosis doctor in Chapel Hill every six weeks.
Post-surgery, Christina will continue to attend pulmonary rehab three times a week in Chapel Hill and visit her doctor once a week. She said she takes a lot more medications now, anywhere between 45 and 50 pills a day.
"Most of them are rejection and immune suppressant pills. I will have to take those for the rest of my life," she said.
Christina had to throw various personal items away like her toothbrush, makeup and fingernail clippers to prevent any infections. Before Christina returns to Mooresboro, her grandmother will have to sterilize her house to remove any potential germs or bacteria.
However, Christina is happy she is able to stop doing her breathing treatments and as long as she eats well, she can eventually have her feeding tube removed.
Best of all, Christina no longer has to struggle to breathe.
"I no longer have to be on oxygen — it's such an amazing feeling," she said. "About a week after my surgery I got to come completely off of it. It feels so different not having tubes or anything on my face, but it's such a wonderful feeling."
After coming off of oxygen, Christina had to learn how to breathe on her own. She can now take a deep breath in and not have to cough.
"It's going to feel good going out in public without having to carry oxygen around and being pushed in a wheelchair," she said. "I now have a different lifestyle I have to live."
While new lungs will not cure her cystic fibrosis, since her transplant Christina is looking forward to living a more normal life.
"The most exciting thing I'm looking forward to when I get back home is just doing things that I wasn't able to do before," she said. "What I really want to do when I get back home is go stay in a log cabin for a few days and take some of my favorite people with me. I would also like to go to the beach in the fall, and maybe by next year I will start planning on going back to college."
How you can help Christina
Christina's driving spirit and positive outlook have brought her this far and allowed her to have a second chance. At no point has she thrown in the towel and allowed cystic fibrosis to overcome her.
Yet, because she and her family need money for expenses not covered by insurance, members of her church in Henrietta and the surrounding community are helping raise $25,000 for Christina through the Children's Organ Transplant Association (COTA), a national charity dedicated to organizing and guiding communities in raising funds for transplant-related expenses.
Anyone interested in donating to help Christina may mail checks or money orders to the Children's Organ Transplant Association, 2501 W. COTA Drive, Bloomington, Indiana 47403. Donations should be made payable to COTA, with "In Honor of Christina Q" written on the memo line of the check. Secure credit card donations are also accepted online at www.COTAforChristinaQ.com.
All of the money received goes to Christina's cause.
"Doctors said Christina wouldn't make it past 10 years old," Johnston said. "But she is 22 now and God is good — I give God the glory for that."