“I started smoking when I was nine years old and I smoked up until a year before I had the transplant.”—Brenda Conder, Double lung transplant patient.
Brenda Conder was raised in Kentucky on a tobacco farm along with ten of her siblings. Her father was a tobacco farmer who passed away from emphysema. Brenda lost four of her sisters to COPD. She grew up like many in the deep rooted tobacco culture of Kentucky. After going in and out of the hospital with pneumonia several times, around 2008, she was diagnosed with COPD. She now had to carry oxygen around with her wherever she went. Brenda explained how stressful it was to constantly worry about oxygen, “You had to carry your tank. If you went out anywhere, you had to make sure you had your breathing treatments and your oxygen. By the time you got all loaded up, you [were] ready to stay home.”
Brenda was an active person who worked in nursing homes for 35 years of her life. Unfortunately, her quality of life declined tremendously in the five years before her transplant because she could not do much without her oxygen. She said, “It just got to the point I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t walk up a flight of steps, I couldn’t do nothing.” Brenda showed me a small gap between her index finger and her thumb to explain how much of her lung was left unharmed before she decided to get on the lung transplant list.
However, getting a lung transplant was not an easy decision for Brenda. One of her sisters who also had COPD passed away right after her lung transplant. Roger Conder, Brenda’s husband explained, “one of the family members she lost, her sister, about ten years ago, went in for a lung transplant and never came out. [Brenda] lost her there.” Knowing that Brenda could lose her life due to complications related to the transplant procedure, the decision to get on a double lung transplant waiting list was a difficult one. Despite her sister’s experience, Brenda decided to get on the transplant list and her doctor recommended that she go to the Albert B. Chandler University of Kentucky hospital for her transplant.
Brenda, along with her supportive husband Roger, drove 60 minutes away from their home to UK hospital for testing. They met with Dr. Maher A. Baz, the medical director of the lung transplant program and began waiting for the lungs. Brenda was on the transplant list for about six to seven weeks. During those weeks she had many false alarms. The hospital called her to tell her they had lungs, however, by the time she got to the hospital it turned out the lungs were not the right match or were not healthy. Brenda explained, “I got called four times for lungs and on the fifth time, on the way up, I knew this was it. I knew this was my lungs. Don’t ask me how I knew but I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t anxious, I trusted the good Lord and the doctors here, and I knew I was going to be okay.” The fifth and final call for lungs came from the hospital and on Friday, November 13th, 2015, Brenda got new lungs. Friday the 13th turned out to be her lucky day. The surgery was done by Dr. Alexis Shafii, the surgical director of the lung transplant program. Brenda described the emotional experience of waking up with new lungs: “When I woke up, I knew I had a new life. It was like, so emotional. When I first opened my eyes, the first thing I could say to [the doctors] was ‘I love you.’ And I did.”
Getting new lungs meant getting a new life for Brenda. She could no longer smoke or be around second hand smoke. She explained how difficult it was for her to stop smoking before her transplant:
“I tried to quit five years ago with Chantix. I would maybe go for a month and then I’d take a drag off a cigarette. My sister still smokes today and I’m around her a lot. I’d go to her house and take a puff off her cigarette and before you know it, I’d get a pack of cigarettes and try to hide it from [my husband] because I knew he wanted me to quit so bad and I was trying. I always had an excuse why I didn’t want to quit. I have to say that anybody who’s got a habit of smoking, I feel for them, I do because I know how hard it is. I had to have that one little puff and it was all up here [pointing to her head]. It’s a mind game.”
When asked if she still craves cigarettes, Brenda replied, “It makes me sick to smell it now and my sister, I love her to death, but I don’t even want to go to her house. But I do because she’s my sister and I’m very close to her. We were a very close family. I pray every day for her to quit smoking because I see her little by little going down the road I traveled.” Brenda is now unable to stand the smell of cigarettes which makes it very difficult for her to be around people she cares about, including her sister, who smoke.
There are many positives to having a new lease on life for Brenda. She can now do things she couldn’t. She can go out in the snow and play with her grandchildren, wear perfume, and travel with her husband. These things have made Brenda’s life much more fulfilling. She said, “My grandbabies, my husband, and my kids mean more to me than a cigarette does.”
Despite the joys of good health, Brenda knows her second chance at life came at a hefty price for another family. She immediately recognized that the reason she could now breathe was because another family had lost a loved one. She said, “After I woke up from my transplant, the first day I think I cried the whole day. Not for me but for the donor family. It’s so emotional. I cried and I kept praying to just give them some peace.” Brenda prays for her donor and donor family every day and encourages everyone to become an organ donor.
Because of her sincere gratitude towards her donor and her doctors and nurses at UK hospital, Brenda cares for her new lungs meticulously. She has a strict routine for her medication. The first thing she does every morning is drink her coffee and begin taking her medicines. She organizes her medication for each week in advance. She said, “Every Friday night, I sit down and make sure I fix my medicine all the way through the week.” She takes medication in the morning, afternoon, and night. She also has to exercise regularly, which is not her favorite part of the routine. She said, “I hated exercising all my life. I hated it. Still hate it but it makes me feel better so I do it.” She knows that in order to keep her lungs healthy she has to exercise whether she likes it or not. She uses the charts given to her by the hospital to keep track of her daily medication, her weight, and her vital signs. Brenda understands that keeping up with this routine is the only way she will stay alive so she is willing to give it her all. She said, “It’s just a whole new life. But you’ve gotta be willing to work for it too. You’ve gotta want it.”
Both Brenda and her husband Roger are eternally grateful to the doctors, nurses, and staff at UK hospital for this new chance at life. Brenda said, “I’ve gotta say, the doctors here…first I’ve got to put my God in here because he led me to the lung transplant along with the donors and the doctors and the nurses. I gotta give them all praise. I wanna fall to my knees every day and thank God for them.” Roger commented on the teamwork that makes the lung transplant program at UK hospital successful: “It’s just unbelievable how they keep everything coordinated and up to date.” This experience has left Brenda with a whole new appreciation for life: “People don’t realize how precious life is. I know I didn’t. But I do now.”
In honor of Brenda’s successful double lung transplant story, Roger created a Facebook page called “Brenda’s New Lease on Life.” You can learn more about Brenda there.