Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to School

I received an awesome email today.

Our good friends and great CF supporters over at Abbott Pharmaceuticals have announced their winners for the 2011 CFCareForward Thriving Student Scholarship. The winners (both undergraduates and graduates) will each receive a $2,500 scholarship to continue reaching their educational goals and kicking CF's butt. And, as far as I'm concerned, that's actually some of the best news ever, for a couple of reasons:

1) I know several of the winners in both categories, and I can say with absolute certainty that they are truly deserving of this prize. Congratulations to all of you from the bottom of my heart!

2) These wonderful students and students-to-be are now eligible for an even bigger prize of $19,000. Better yet, WE (as in all the members of the CF community, including every single one of you) get to decide the winners of this extra bonus prize! One Thriving Undergraduate and one Thriving Graduate Student will be selected from among the general winners, and it's up to us to help make that selection.

It's my honor to write about this contest and to support the truly awesome winners of this scholarship. As some of you might know, education is hugely important to me. The CF community is hugely important to me. Making sure that each and every person -- regardless of circumstances, physical traits, disease status, or other so-called "disability" -- knows that he or she is capable of achieving amazing things is unbelievably, incredibly, and (I'll say it again) HUGELY important to me. The fact that these CFers are out there pushing themselves mentally and physically to achieve their educational goals is both inspiring and brave. The fact that you and I have the chance to help them in this pursuit is just the icing on Abbott's already very generous cake.

Please take a moment to visit the CFCareForward Scholarship Home Page and read up on all of these phenomenal individuals. Then do your part and cast your vote for one undergraduate and one graduate student to win the Thriving Student prize of $19,000 toward their educational goals. The contest will remain open until September 30, 2011. You can vote in one of three simple ways:
  • Online at www.CFCareForwardScholarship.com
  • By text message at 30364
  • Via toll-free phone numbers at: 1-888-305-9808 (Thriving Undergraduate Student) and 1-888-306-9683 (Thriving Graduate Student)
Help show these folks that we are behind them 100% in creating an even stronger community of awesome, high-achieving CFers. Help show Abbott that we appreciate this generous program to help us reach our goals. Most importantly, help support all of us by showing once again that we, as individuals and even more so as a group, are waaaaay stronger than this disease will ever be. Because together we will keep on proving again and again and again that we are all of us "thriving" in our own way -- and that we plan to keep on doing so for a long, long time to come!

A heartfelt thanks to Abbott Pharmaceuticals for their continued dedication to bettering the lives of CFers through treatment, education, support, and exceptional programs like this one, as well as to all those who applied for the 2011 CFCareForward Scholarship.

Lots of love, light, and learning to all of you, beautiful people.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Brief Letter to a Wonderful Soul

To my beautiful cousin:

I'm not exactly sure I know how to this write this. After all, I'm sure you understand that the one thing my life experience growing up never taught me to be ready for was the death of my so-called "healthy" peers, friends, loved ones, and family members. If I had been asked at ten years old what I would say to you after your passing at 29, I would have thought they had the roles reversed. I would have been ready for the question the other way around -- would have probably been somewhat blase about it all and even curious to hear your answer -- but I would never have guessed that it would ever come down to this. To me sitting here, writing this, and you somewhere out there, hopefully receiving it. Which is why I have to be honest here: this is not something I planned on, and it is not something I know how to do well.

I'm not sure how to say goodbye to someone I hadn't seen in so long, for example, but who I thought about literally more often than some of the people I talk to on a regular basis. It doesn't seem fair that after all that time apart we should have denied at least some form of a reunion here on earth, especially when I consider the fact that I talked about you to so many people. Seriously, dude, you should have heard how much I bragged about you to people you had never even met. You would have laughed at me, I know it. Would have smiled at the thought of me strutting around the manicured quads of my southern university, stopping to tell pretty much anyone who would listen about how my awesome cousin back in California gave his class graduation speech in sign language. Would have thought it was amusing how the simple fact of knowing (and being related to) you made me interested in learning more about the deaf community. Would hopefully have been touched by the fact that I felt connected to you, even across so many miles and so many memories. Would certainly have enjoyed the fact that I could never again watch "Seinfeld" without thinking of you.

I don't like having to let you go, dude. I don't like thinking of you as not here. I know how much you were loved and how much you did with your short life, and I just wish it could have longer. But I guess in this sense, at least, I am prepared. Because one thing I do know, cousin, is that life is sometimes way too short, and that being a great person, having a lot to offer, making a huge impression on everyone you meet -- none of that is insurance against unfairness. So I know better, by now at least, than to spend too much time wishing that you were still here, or that I could simply hop a plane to reconnect and erase the lifetime's worth of experiences between us. I know instead that I have to wish you well on the next part of your journey, whatever that entails, and that I have to send my love with even more strength and energy now to reach you. But I also know that it is worth it. I know that where you are is peaceful, and I know that you deserve every single little bit of that, and so much more.

For what it's worth, my friend, I don't think I could ever go long without thinking of the laughs and the lessons and the light you gave to me. Like the fact that there is so much out there beyond CF that we have to fight -- that there are so many other things that can take a life too young, and that there is no such thing as competitive suffering. We are all in this together, regardless of circumstances, and I will never, ever forget that.

Most importantly, though, I want to thank you for helping to show me that there are many types of beauty in this world, just as there are many different ways to express it. Thanks for showing me that sometimes obstacles in the traditional sense are no obstacles at all, but simply the things that make us special. And thanks for proving time and time again that true communication between two people goes way deeper than just the words we speak or the way we choose to hear them. If I could do one for thing for you it would be this: that I will promise to stick it out down here for as long as I possibly can, and that I will carry your message with me for anyone who will listen, however they happen to do so.

And if I have to be at least a small part of your continued life down here for just a little while, well, then you can be my ears up there. Because it might not be the way that anyone would have imagined this picture looking 29 years out, but I promise you this, dear cousin:

It will be beautiful.

With all my love and gratitude,

Friday, August 19, 2011

Be Unbroken

On the evening of June 11th, 2010, I sat munching on a three-course dinner at a four-star NYC restaurant with my mother, father, and sister. The food was wonderful and easy to swallow; it was just too bad the same couldn't be said for the mood or the conversation. My family was, to put it mildly, a little bit distressed. A couple of days earlier we had received some disheartening news from one my doctors, and I was fairly certain that we were in for at least another month or two on the waiting list for new lungs. Another month or two of keeping my life "on hold", of living with ravaged lungs, of seeing the stress and worry in my loved ones' eyes. Another month of two of gasping for breath. Another month or two of hoping for a miracle...and of praying for survival.

Um, yeah, did I mention we were just a teeny, tiny bit upset that night?

Of course, many of you know the rest of the story from that evening. You know the part about how, just as our check arrived, my phone started to ring and the tell-tale number flashed up on my caller ID. You might have heard about how we rushed out the door of the restaurant, my dad sprinting for the nearest cab, my mom already on her phone to some of our nearest and dearest. And you may even remember the pictures of all 4 of us sitting in the admissions waiting room at my hospital, proudly displaying our "new lungs" t-shirts and looking pretty stunned to be there. We were jaded from too many dry runs and near misses, and we were none of us exactly sure what to expect that evening. That we would end up "meeting" my beloved Donor Bob in the early hours of June 12th, 2010, was almost more than we would have ever dared hope.

Yes, many of you know the story because we were blessed to have so many wonderful followers out there from so many different walks of life. Then again, you might not know quite as much about that evening as you think you do. Because the part of the story that you might not have heard is how much I cried.

As soon as I got the call I ran down to the bathroom of the restaurant and locked myself inside, where I quickly turned on the sink to make some background noise. I knew my family was waiting for me outside the door, so I made it quick. I looked straight in the mirror, saw the terrified, overwhelmed, exhausted face staring back at me -- and burst into tears. Not because of what I saw there, but because I knew I would likely never see that face again. I cried, in other words, not for the miraculous blessing I was about to receive, but for the wonderful thing (and yes, my lungs were wonderful, in their own way) that I was giving up. I cried for the part of myself that I was losing.

My father recently had a discussion with a wonderful CF doctor that my family has known and trusted for years and years and years. (Note the number there: I put in three because I'm almost 30 -- yikes! Who'd have thunk that, right?) This highly trained physician and researcher mentioned to dad that, at least in his experience, most transplant patients have an emotional element to their surgery that isn't really addressed or spoken of, or at least not super often. He compared it to the PTSD often seen in people returning from conflict or war -- basically the sense of having been changed by the experience, and the crises of faith or identity that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with an important and life-altering event. I'm sure there's a more technical description for all of that (and PS, if you have one, please share it!), but for my purposes here it's enough to know that it can simply be hard, on a lot of levels.

My first conscious thought after surgery was that this was going to be difficult. It wasn't so much the physical pain that was a problem -- I expected all of that, and more -- but the strange feeling I had of suddenly being out of control. As silly as it sounds, I had an immediate sense of "missing" my old lungs. They were little brats by the end there, sure, but they were brats that I knew how to discipline, knew how to coddle, and knew how to live with. All the new medicines and machines and doctors and surroundings confused me, even after I came out of my ICU madness (and for the record I was pretty bad in there -- they really shouldn't let people with law degrees get major surgery). For a long time after the operation I had a very unsettling tendency to burst into tears at random moments. And sure, probably a fair amount of that emotion was drug-induced or pain-related, of course, but I think there was something more to it as well. Weird as it is to admit, and certainly to type and record here for the duration of this blog, I think I felt a little, well...I guess the word would be lost. People around me were celebrating, they were grateful, they were "done." They wanted me to talk about how much better I felt, and how happy I was, and in a way all of that was completely reasonable. But there was also another part of it for me. I felt like maybe there was going to be more to this whole transplant thing than simply learning how to breathe again and then just getting on with it. Or, to put it another way, I suddenly realized that it wasn't going to be all "hey, cool, new lungs, new breath, new life. Bye, mom, and have fun back in Colorado! Thanks for the prayers, everyone. See you all when I win my Nobel Prize!"

Um, yeah, not so much.

Don't get me wrong, guys. I don't want anyone to misread my message here as a major Debbie Downer moment. I am thrilled and grateful beyond my wildest dreams to have been given this chance at life with new lungs. I am firmly and completely in support of transplant, for those who think it's the right choice for them, and I am 100% certain that I made the right choice. I love and respect my doctors, trust that I am getting awesome follow-up care, and count my lucky stars daily for all the support I received (and continue to receive) from all of the beautiful people in my life. To say I am blessed would be like calling the Empire State Building "tall" -- it just doesn't do the real thing justice.

That said, I was really intrigued when my dad told me about this doctor's perspective. He knows what he's doing, and he's worked with a lot of different CF patients of various ages. His observations about stress, trauma, and transplant certainly won't hold true in every case, of course, but I think I'm ready to admit that they really did ring true for me. Despite all the wonder and the beauty and the blessings and the crazy awesome stressful happy unfuckingbelievable madness of my story, I think it's fair to say that there is a little something of me that I still think of as missing. It's maybe just something that I am learning, however slowly and however different it may end up looking, to rebuild.

And so tomorrow night my wonderful Godmother is taking me out for a small celebration, to ring in 14 months of this new(ish) existence in style and to toast the start of new things. Although I am still on IV antibiotics and still struggling with certain aspects of this process, I am also starting -- again, however slowly -- to face my own reflection, even if it looks just a tiny bit different now. And as part of that moment, we will go back to the restaurant where it all started. Or maybe where it all ended, depending on your perspective. Because I want to go back there. Because I need to find my way back, no matter how corny or dramatic it sounds. Because I am ready to move forward -- whatever that means. And because I am always, eternally and forever, beyond grateful.

For all of it.