A Climber’s Thanksgiving Gift

Felix, thanks for your note! I am glad you are eating well.

Here is a story I wrote about my transplant experience for all to enjoy. It’s a bit long, but it’s the shortened version!

A Climber’s Thanksgiving Gift

by Stacey Collver
Unknowingly, I was about to reach the crux of my life. But I remember shedding only a few tears that fateful August afternoon in 2003.

“I have some good news, and some bad news,” the doctor had begun. The good news is that we have answers for you. We know why you’re short of breath. You don’t have asthma; you have a rare lung disease called Lymphangioleiomyomatosis, or LAM for short.” He paused for a second, getting ready for his next announcement. “There is no cure for this disease, except to get a lung transplant. The survival rate of five years after the transplant is not great, but without the transplant we expect you to live less than two years.”

“Two years?” I whispered in a feeble voice. I became numb, and shivered in my tank top, both from the diagnosis and the cold air of the air conditioning. Confusion set in. At 35, I prided myself on being in the best shape of my life, competing in rock-climbing competitions and coaching a beloved youth climbing team. I was the president of a national women”s rock-climbing club, sheclimbs, inc.

Confusion turned to tears. I wept alone, quietly, until the social worker appeared. She listened compassionately and started me on the road to handling my new challenges. That afternoon, the doctor prescribed supplemental oxygen and arranged for the tanks to be delivered to my house the following day.

At first I only used the oxygen when I exercised, which consisted of mostly rock-climbing. For 2 months, my lung function held steady. My muscles were still strong and I continued my life as usual. After work, I continued to enjoy climbing by taping a 57′ cord to my face and ascending the gym walls, leaving the portable oxygen tank on the ground.

I was determined to keep having fun at the sport. Climbing was always a great way to spend time with friends and a therapeutic way to forget life’s problems for the moment. When I first started using the oxygen, it was an extra boost and I even set some personal records using it. At the end of August, I took a trip to Yosemite with my friend Mark and climbed the boulders around the historic Camp 4. In September, I climbed at Indian Rock in Berkeley. I continued to guide trips for my team kids to nearby Castle Rock in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with the help of the kids and parents, who carried the oxygen tanks.

By October of 2003, however, I started using oxygen 24/7. Daily chores were more difficult, and my mother, Laura Jeanchild, moved in with me to help me cook and clean.

On my 36th birthday, I had a big fundraiser at the gym where I worked, Twisters Climbing Gym. About 80 people attended, and the event raised enough money to enable me to quit work and start living on disability checks.
When she had heard of my diagnosis, my friend, Tori Winters, made an incredible website (www.windsongfoundation.org) which contained a profile, pictures, and a daily journal to record the news of my everyday life and communicate with friends and family around the world. The journal was so important during this time. I wrote about my hopes and dreams, my observations about nature, and my changing view of the world and humanity due to my recent experiences.

One thing that kept my spirit alive was the international campaign started by past president Carolyn McHale, through the sheclimbs, inc. Sheclimbs members from all over the world got sponsors and started climbing mountains in my honor. The first summit was Mt. Washington, and it went on to summits in Estonia, Latvia, Colorado, Georgia, Mexico. In addtion, there was an annual climb-a-thon in December which brought in much needed funds. Every year, climbers came together, got sponsors, and ascended over 29,035 feet (the height of Mt. Everest) in a climbing gym. The summits were such a great honor and they kept my mind off my weakening state.

The waiting went on. A year passed. I was starting to get depressed, because I didn’t have the energy to do fun things and it was hard to be alone most of the day. Then the physical fear set in…at night I was short of breath and could not sleep, even with the oxygen turned up full blast. By October of 2004, I had trouble talking and laughing. I was dying. My lungs were failing, and I was at the end-stage of lung disease. Would I live to the transplant? One-third of patients die waiting for their transplants. It was beginning to look grim.

On November 21st, 2004, the real “call” came! My friends and family came to the hospital, and I was wheeled into the operating room at midnight. The surgery went very well, and I was making a strong recovery. In the ICU, I could not talk because of the tube in my mouth, and I excitedly wrote notes to my friends, and waved at the doctors and nurses. On the third day, I could stand up out of bed, even with the myriad of tubes connected to so many parts of my body.

By Thanksgiving, a few days later, I was able to take walks around the hospital corridors, and in the following week I walked religiously. The doctors stressed that exercise was very important for gaining strength back. By the time of my discharge, two and a half weeks out from the surgery, I was walking a mile throughout the day.

I was released from the hospital and lived with my mother and friend Dave at the Home apartments, located only three blocks from the hospital. For the next month, I had daily appointments at the hospital for drug treatments, clinic visits, x-rays, and physical therapy. I also had several bronchoscopies, small operations in which the doctors sample the lung tissue and check for rejection or infection.

Due to the excellent food provided by my mother, and exercise sessions with Dave, I continued to grow stronger over the next couple months. Each week, I could breathe easier, and walk further and faster than before. In-between medical appointments, Dave and I became obsessed with climbing flights of stairs. By two and a half months out, I was able to complete 100 flights in a couple hours.

At the three-month point, I fell seriously ill to three causes: the CMV virus, influenza, and pneumonia. Within a few days, I was back in the ICU with a face mask on. To get through the trauma of not being able to breathe, I imagined that I was climbing Mt. Everest, and taking a single breath with each step.

I spent the next seven weeks in the hospital, barely able to get out of bed, and feeling nauseated most of the time. My mother lived with me in the hospital room for the first few weeks. My friends and family visited every day, sometimes just sitting and holding my hand when I was too weak to talk. They brought food, gifts, books to read and movies to watch. Most of all they brought hope that life was going to get better, and this illness would pass. It was their compassion that kept my spirit strong. To keep my eye on the future, I hung up climbing posters of my friends Hans, Scott and Lynn in my hospital room and talked about the sport to the staff when I felt well enough to be social. On good days, I walked to the computer room and wrote in my journal.

It was a humbling time. This second brush with death made me realize how truly vulnerable I was, as opposed to my previous view of myself as invincible. The doctors keep me on IV medicines for weeks, waiting for me to get strong enough to have gall bladder surgery. Eventually, I did recover and underwent the surgery, and was released from the hospital.

The waiting game and the transplant experience turned my world inside out. It gave me a new respect for life, and for the people who showed compassion for me throughout my crisis. It taught me about humility, some broken dreams, and my own mortality. It was the worst of times, but in some ways, the best of times–at certain points I had never felt more loved. My recovery was a team effort of my mother, Dave and all my family and friends. The support from the climbing community was a warm surprise, and continues to this day. And through it all, I strive to keep up the climbing spirit and stay strong.

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