The Value of a Friend Who Breathes Heavily

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by Brad Dell |

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(Courtesy of Kathleen Sheffer)

Kathleen belaying Brad as he climbs. Not quite near the top yet. (Courtesy of Kathleen Sheffer)

There are times I feel especially mortal. Such as when I’m feet from the top of a rock climbing wall, and I realize I’m relying on a single rope to ensure I don’t become a splatter of blood on the ground below. A bundle of intertwined threads belayed by a girl as thin as me — and I’m really thin.

Clinging to the wall for dear life, I stare down at the girl, Kathleen Sheffer, and beg with my eyes for her to loosen the rope and let me down. She responds with a series of tugs on the rope. Keep climbing. I curse her in my mind: Always so stubborn, let me be afraid. More tugs. I take a deep breath (or was it a sigh?) and reach for the next handhold.

Once on the ground, I realized two things.

  1. My life has been in the hands of less-trusty things than rope: irritable ventilators, scalpels wielded by rookie doctors, bronchoscopes that love puncturing lung tissue.
  2. If there’s anyone I’d trust to keep me from falling, it’s that thin girl.

Friendship that thrives ’cause we almost died

One of the gems of transplant life for a CFer is finally having the opportunity to meet other people with pulmonary diseases in person — Kathleen was my first. And it couldn’t have been anyone better. She says she’s the devil on my shoulder, but I’ve always thought of her as a guardian angel.

Our friendship sparked from a comment I made on her blog. She’d gotten her heart-lung transplant a few months before because of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PH). I was undergoing my lung transplant evaluation at the time and marveled at the success of her transplant.

I had a Facebook friend request from her just minutes later.

I, an optimist, would soon discover she’s a realist. I obsessed over the bright spots in her post-transplant life, but she warned me that transplant ain’t exactly easy. She knew organic gifts come at terrible prices: addictions, tear-blood-sweat-stained sheets, crises of identity, survivor’s guilt. But she also fed me hope, sharing what’s magnificent about transplant life: what morphs from mundane to sacred, from humble to glorious.

Kathleen and I met in person for the first time in a coffee shop a few weeks after my transplant. I was fully deaf because of amikacin use, but she patiently typed out questions and answers on her phone. When she asked about my transplant experience, I tried to inject my words with bravado, to make it seem like I wasn’t suffering. I didn’t want to reveal that I felt like a coward, that I sobbed at night wondering if my transplant was a mistake, that I thought I wasted my donor’s lungs, that I wanted nothing more than another fentanyl injection. I couldn’t tell my loved ones all this, and I most definitely couldn’t tell this girl I’d only spoken to over the internet. Soon enough, though, I’d talk to her about things I’d never spoken to anyone else about before. But for that day, we were content in laughing together. I admired how strong she seemed just months out from transplant. That could be me.

Keep climbing

That first hike. My smile would soon disappear when cramps clutched my legs. (Courtesy of Kathleen Sheffer)

I was excited about our next meeting before we’d even parted ways. I wasn’t excited when we met days later, and Kathleen suggested we take an urban hike. But I had to seem strong, yeah? So, I did it. My legs had bundles of lead strapped to them, I swear it. I felt like crying as she motioned for me to keep climbing. We made it a good way up. I cringed when Kathleen promised we’d do bigger hikes in the future. She didn’t go easy on me, and she still doesn’t.

Kathleen fulfilled her promise months later, climbing with me to the tip-top of San Francisco, far above UCSF, where I received my transplant. My new lungs strained against the effort, but it felt good — we kept climbing. We stood together at the top, wiped but euphoric. I spent my diseased life in isolation, void of empathy. It’s magical to breathe hard with someone else after a tough hike.

I gazed into cotton candy-colored sky evaporating into dusk. We’d recently learned friends in the transplant community passed away. Kathleen made me swear to live forever. I swore it, though we both knew what we signed up for when we accepted those organic gifts.

But atop that towering hill, in that ethereal yet ephemeral atmosphere, I did feel immortal. With a friend like Kathleen watching my back, how could I not?


(Courtesy of Kathleen Sheffer)


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