Every breath she takes
“I just love being there,” the fifth-grade teacher said. “It feels so good to be back.
“I can’t even put it into words. I think I love it even more now.”
Not quite a year ago, Karyn said goodbye to the school where she’d served as a parent volunteer, done her student teaching and then taught for almost seven years.
She had gone to heroic lengths to continue working despite the cystic fibrosis that ravaged her lungs and pancreas. She’d been rising at 4:30 a.m. in order to get through a battery of therapy and medication so she could make it to her classroom on time.
But finally, with her body failing, she had to trade teaching for sick leave.
At that point, Karyn, then 47, had been on a double-lung transplant list for about 18 months. The accountant-turned-educator was told a transplant was her only hope of making it out of her 40s.
When she was first placed on the list, she said, she wasn’t sick enough to command much of a priority. As the months wore on, she became sick enough to make her way to the top. Still, the phone didn’t ring.
All the while, she maintained a brave front. But she was afraid she was never going to get the lifesaving call.
“I waited so long, I didn’t think it was every going to happen,” she said.
By summer, her condition had deteriorated to the point she could no longer draw enough breath to walk. Her husband, Rick, had to push her in a wheelchair as they went from one doctor’s appointment to the next.
“That was life,” Rick said.
On July 3, they were driving to Portland for a bone density scan at Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital when the phone rang. “What are you doing today?” asked a member of the University of Washington’s hospital staff.
They raced to Hillsboro, where they had arranged an emergency flight to Seattle. It wasn’t covered by insurance, so the Sampsons had to pick up the tab themselves. But it was crucial, as Karyn needed to get to the Seattle hospital within three hours of receiving the call.
By 12:30 p.m., they were landing at Boeing Field. By 1:15, they were at the transplant venue.
Karyn has little memory of the whirlwind trip, but her husband remembers every bit of it.
At 2:15, they were admitted to the thoracic intensive care unit. She went to pre-op at 3:30 and to the operating room at 4:30. The surgery began at 5:30 and didn’t wrap up until 11.
While he was waiting for the doctor to appear, Rick spent a lot of time on his phone, contacting and updating family members. He texted his daughters and his sisters, telling them Karyn would soon have a new set of lungs.
At 2 a.m. July 4, he used his phone to snap a photo of Karyn in the recovery room. He sent it to family members as a way of celebrating Karyn’s own personal independence day — independence from cystic fibrosis.
“We’d talked about what would happen, then suddenly it was reality,” Rick said.
Rick said he didn’t spend time worrying while his wife was undergoing the transplant surgery. At that point, he said, all he could think was “what a great opportunity.”
“Without this ... well, we know the other side of the coin,” said Rick, who had been watching her condition deteriorate for years. “This was a new opportunity for her, for life.”
It’s a rare opportunity.
Karyn was the 33rd of the hospital’s 56 double-lung transplants patients of 2013. It is one of only a handful in the country doing the procedure.
Each of the recipients got the opportunity because someone volunteered to donate their organs upon their death. “How can you not be excited and grateful for that?” Rick asked.
The Sampsons don’t know who donated Karyn’s new lungs, although they both have the feeling that the donor was a young man — one small enough to match her petite size. They don’t know where the organs came from, either, though it had to be relatively close by, as they didn’t arrive by air.
Someday, they said, they may write a letter to the donor’s family.
If so, it will be up to the transplant bank to pass it on and the family to decide whether to reply. But what can they say besides thanks, Karyn wondered.
She’s grateful with every breath she takes, of course.
“I’m just thankful to the lung donor,” she said.
She said she encourages people to sign up to donate organs. Such a gift could save someone’s life.
“I’m thankful for my life right now,” she said. “Without that donor and that family, and without my family and friends, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
Her husband has been her number one advocate, she said. “He’s been amazing, my life support,” she said. “I’m so thankful for his love and support.”
Rick, a self-employed residential contractor, has done the cooking, cleaning and laundry, helped her with her treatments and reminded her about taking her medications. Before she got the OK to resume driving, he chauffeured her everywhere, even to Nordstrom to look for shoes.
Their daughters also have been invaluable, she said. Brittany, 25, kept the household running while she and Rick were in Seattle. Kathryn, 22, a pre-med at Oregon State University, helped at the hospital.
Karyn said she’s felt support and love from so many others, as well: the teachers and staff members at Grandhaven; Superintendent Maryalice Russell and others in the school district; students, parents, neighbors and other friends; her doctors.
Rick noted that they probably don’t even know all the things people did for them during Karyn’s illness and transplant recovery time.
The lung transplant itself was just the beginning of Sampson’s recovery. She suffered several serious setbacks during the next few months, including a perforated bowel and several serious reactions to anti-rejection drugs.
She remained in the hospital for 90 days, 62 of them in the thoracic ICU. She had to stay nearby as an outpatient for several more weeks before finally being cleared to come back home at Thanksgiving.
She returns to the University of Washington’s transplant unit for follow-up visits every two months. Eventually, the hospital will scale back the visits to twice a year and let doctors at OHSU handle the interim checkups.
Sampson still is on medication due to her damaged pancreas. But she no longer has to rise in the early hours to prepare for a day. Now she can get ready in “normal time.”
Not long after Sampson returned to McMinnville, staff members from Grandhaven got together for a weekend sewing and quilting party. They created a special quilt using lots of orange and purple, her favorite colors, and images of shoes, which she loves.
They sang Christmas carols to her when they brought her the gift. “It definitely keeps me warm,” Sampson said.
These days, Sampson leaves the quilt at home a lot. She’d rather spend as much time as possible at school.
She may help in friend Beth Fuhrer’s classroom, escort students to their library or music classes, or just attend an assembly or music performance — “all those special things they do.”
She not only attended, but also participated in, the school’s recent jog-a-thon. She joined students in circling the track, walking almost two miles.
In addition to going to school, she has physical therapy sessions twice a week to build her strength, and takes walks with the family’s three dogs on other days.
She’s happy about doing the everyday things she hasn’t been able to do, or do a lot of, for years: Laundry. Housecleaning. Cooking. For years, she hadn’t had enough breath and stamina to stand long enough to fix dinner.
“Now I’ve been baking,” she said. “The Grandhaven staff is going to get fat.”
She just got clearance to drive again as well.
One of the best parts of her life these days is simply being able to breathe normally.
“Now I can laugh without coughing. I can walk up stairs,” she said. “I can enjoy life.”
Starla Pointer has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.