As we approach the holidays, my mind is flooded with memories of two Christmas trees that stand out above all the rest. Not because they were tall, or boasted perfect branches, or were immaculately decorated, but because they remind me of all the blessings and miracles in my life, and of generosity and selflessness. They remind me to be grateful for something as simple yet as miraculous as the ability to breathe.
The first tree was small and modest, quietly “doorbell ditched” on the front porch of a humble family, culminating an anonymous 12 days of Christmas my family was gifting. I was just a small girl, but imagining the happiness that a beautiful tree would bring was the most exhilarating emotion I had ever felt.
The second tree is even more special to me this year, because it’s been exactly fifteen years since our family’s Christmas tree was my IV pole, wrapped and decorated with Christmas lights in the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. My family and I were celebrating the realization of my Christmas anthem, “All I want for Christmas are two new lungs” after my double lung transplant at age 16. On Christmas Eve, we giddily watched the strand of IV Christmas lights twinkle as my parents, brothers, sister and brother-in law all clustered around my hospital bed, clothed from head to toe in yellow sanitary gowns, gloves and masks trying to eat pizza. It wasn’t about material gifts, it was about the gifts of life, love and family made possible through the gift of our Savior. It was the happiest Christmas I had ever known. Our happiness was made possible by two men truly loving their neighbor, and unselfishly becoming the answer to many heartfelt prayers.
To explain, before this transplant, at age 16 I was deathly ill due to cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that mainly affects the lungs and pancreas. Due to a defect in the sodium chloride channel, thick mucus is produced that clogs airways and leads to life-threatening infections which over time scar the lungs, killing lung tissue until eventually there is no healthy tissue left. Death in CF patients is usually caused by suffocation, even despite breathing from an oxygen tank. My health had steadily been declining since my freshman year of high school, and I gradually had to take fewer and fewer classes until I was eventually completely homeschooled and bed ridden by my junior year. My health rapidly spiraled downward, accompanied by constant 104 degree fevers, vomiting, no appetite, and no energy to even stand in the shower. Yet I was still in denial that I was dying. I had watched my older brother, Justin, at age 19, cheerfully endure these same challenges months before he passed away, and had told myself that if my behavior ever mirrored his then I would know I was dying. I even reminded myself of this, but I just couldn’t accept that death was what came next. That was impossible. I had always been so much healthier than Justin. I wasn’t going to die at 16 due to cystic fibrosis. The cure was going to be here.
My day-to-day routine was not so bad, but some days, the accumulative effect of not seeing any improvement and not being able to do anything for myself would cause me to cave. I tried not to let my family see me cry, so it was often late at night when the tears would quietly and freely flow, bringing me to my knees…in bed. With swollen eyes, I would call on the powers of heaven, the very same powers that created this universe. I would plead for strength—in both mind and body.
As I struggled for breath and for life, it was confirmed to me again and again that God was my companion. I came to know in a tangible, undeniable way that God is our Father and loves us SO MUCH and is waiting, ready with open, outstretched arms to strengthen us as we wait upon him. As we read in Isaiah 40:29, 31, “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength…they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
I know the simply prayers beginning with “My Heavenly Father” can have a profound effect upon our lives. He really does hear our prayers – no matter how big, or how small.
After a series of miracles, too many to detail here (you can read about some of them here or all about them here), I was accepted for a living lobar lung transplant at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. A living lobar transplant is an alternative for individuals who will likely die while on the waiting list for a traditional transplant. It involves the surgical removal of the right lower lobe from one living donor and the left lower lobe from a separate living donor, (everyone has five lobes total) and replacing the recipients diseased 5 lobes (which are completely removed) with these two new lobes. The recipient now has a new set of lungs comprised of the donor’s two lobes. The first successful transplant utilizing a living lobe donor was celebrated in 1990 when a mother donated a lobe to her dying twelve-year-old daughter. In 1999, my junior year of high school, the procedure was still quite rare, and continues to be today.
After hopeful testing, none of my immediate family members or extended family qualified as a match for me. My very life was at the complete mercy of the selflessness and courage of friends. Word quietly leaked out to friends that a donor was needed. Within days, more than 30 individuals stepped forward and offered to undergo the difficult, painful surgery for me. It is indescribable to express what it feels like when you are so helpless, and can do nothing for yourself and angels steps forward and say, “l will do that for you,” which in this case translates to, “I will save your life.” After a series of tests and their own powerful witnesses to step forward, family friend Dr. Jim Davies and family friend and my church Bishop at the time, Graham Bullick, were accepted as my lung donors.
The night before surgery, my dad recorded in his journal: November 28, 1999: “I have talked to many doctors since being here about the procedure. It will be a difficult few weeks but seeing Jennifer healthy, with energy, will be terrific. She is so excited. She is so remarkable. She said if it were not for her family she would just as soon pass on. She said, ‘Dad, I think this surgery will be fine, but if not, don’t be sad because I’ll still be fine. I will either wake up with new lungs or wake up on the other side. Both would be great.’ What great faith she has. She said the transplant is too easy and wondered what future challenges she would need to face if this works!”
After a week of health ups and downs and many prayers on my behalf after surgery, my breathing tube was finally removed. It was with no little reverence that I inhaled my first deep breath with my new lungs and crumbled into a puddle of tears. My tears were the grateful realization I had new, healthy working lungs. I was going to have energy. I was going to breathe easily. I was going to breathe deeply. I wasn’t going to cough twenty-four-seven. I was going to live.
A couple days later, my joy turned to extreme reverence and gratitude as I beheld my donors on the other side of my ICU glass window. Although they were not allowed into my room, no walls could separate the love penetrating every inch of that hospital chamber. The weight of their sacrifice became more real as I sat inhaling and exhaling with lobes from their lungs, all the while not feeling like I wasn’t breathing at all. As I gazed at their smiles through the glass, I was overcome with indescribable awe and tremendous gratitude at their sacrifice. My donors had willingly teetered on the edge of mortality in order to rescue me from the brink of death. I knew from that moment on, every joy I experience in this life, every new discovery, every smile, every hope for the future, simply every second, I would owe to them.
Their sacrifice has given me greater understanding and greater appreciation for the suffering, sacrifice, and saving power of Jesus Christ. Speaking of His sacrifice, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “We cannot forget that. We must never forget it, for here our Savior, our Redeemer, the Son of God, gave Himself, a vicarious sacrifice for each of us. May we always remember Him and the price He paid to win our souls.” Remembering and being grateful for my donors’ gift, and Christ’s exquisite gift is my guiding light. Everything is made permanently right in Christ – whether in this life or the next if we strive to follow Him.
Now, over 15 years later, I am grateful for all that my donors have made possible in my life – from my very life – to graduating high school, graduating college, working multiple jobs, starting my own company Carlsbad Cravings and getting to cook and eat a lot, to traveling to exotic locations, living with 13 different roommates, forging lifelong friendships, being aunt to 20 nieces and nephews, continued daughter to my parents and sister to my brothers and sister, to being mommy to my squishy French Bulldog, Kiwi, to marrying the man of my dreams and getting to spend my cherished time with him. All made possible by Graham, Jim and an omnipotent Father in Heaven.
As I think back on these two special Christmases and Christmas trees, I realize that we likely won’t have the chance to physically save someone’s life, but we do have the opportunity, whether we know it or not, to save others every day emotionally and spiritually through our small acts of love and kindness. Giving to others, and being recipients of giving, changes everything. As Albert Einstein so eloquently stated, “Only a life lived for others is a life worth living.”
I’m so grateful for those who were willing to give their life for me, and for what it has taught me about honoring the reason for the season, even our own Savior, Jesus Christ.