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Transplant gives woman new breath

Photo by Ann Borden

Photo by Ann Borden

COVINGTON -- Jo Ellen Kimball was a healthy 33-year-old with two young sons, a husband and a job as a fourth-grade teacher at East Newton Elementary when she began noticing a persistent cough and shortness of breath.

She was diagnosed and treated for pneumonia, but the symptoms lingered. Despite doctors' assurances that she was fine, Kimball knew in her heart something was very wrong, and so, she took matters into her own hands.

"I referred myself to Emory (Healthcare). I went up there and said, 'Who's the best?' I went on my 34th birthday," she said.

After a lung biopsy, Kimball received some shocking news: She had interstitial lung disease, which over time develops into idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which the lung tissue becomes thickened, stiff and scarred. As this happens, the lungs lose the ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream and the brain and other organs can't get the oxygen they need. In most cases, as with Kimball, the cause of the disease is unknown.

"It came out of the blue. They'll never know what causes it. It's hard not to know, but the doctor finally said, 'You're going to have to let that go.'"

Kimball was told she would eventually need a lung transplant and was sent home with medication to slow the disease's progression and oxygen that she would rely on around the clock. Kimball was unique in that her medication kept her stabilized for the next six years.

"Almost no one lives six years with IPF. It's unheard of. The goal was to try to keep my lungs as long as I could. Once you have a transplant, the clock is ticking, so to speak. It's not a cure forever; it's a cure for right now," she said.

Eventually though, it was time for the transplant. Kimball endured a six-hour surgery in September, after which she spent 17 days in the hospital. She was the 300th lung transplant patient at Emory. Two months later, her health is improving and she has more freedom now that she's driving again and no longer needs oxygen.

"I'm looking forward to normal things everybody takes for granted, like getting in the car and going somewhere without having to fill up two oxygen tanks and think 'OK, I can be gone for four hours and then I have to come home.' I don't have to do that anymore," she said.

Her sons, now 13 and 16, have been waiting for the day when their mother can play tennis and ride a roller coaster with them, and Kimball hopes that day will come soon.

She currently goes to Emory two or three days a week for tests to make sure her body isn't rejecting the new lungs, and she takes up to 16 medications a day. Kimball is grateful for renewed health, but she knows her battle is not over. The survival rate for lung transplant recipients is usually seven to 10 years. Some live only a year.

But she recently went to an event at Emory to celebrate the triumph of 300 transplants, and met people there who have survived as long as 14 years. Their stories give her hope, as do the stories of others she meets at lung transplant support groups.

"Traumatic things do happen, but there's always hope. I believe that not only as a Christian but also because of the medical advances at Emory," she said.

But thinking about the future is something Kimball does less of these days.

"I'm grateful when tomorrow comes. That's how I live my life now. I really live it day by day," she said.

In a few months, she will be allowed to write a letter to the family of her donor. She doesn't know their names or where they live, and it will be up to them to decide if that will change.

"I'd love to meet these people whose family member is with me. This person is with me all the time. I want them to see I'm doing everything I can to honor their loved one by going through this life with a great attitude and taking care of myself," she said. "I wouldn't be here without them. It's not just me now -- it's kind of the two of us. There's no way I can ever thank them enough, but if they see me now, somebody that really loves this gift, and they see it gave me more time with my children, maybe in some way that will help them."

Kimball signed up to be an organ donor years before she knew organ donation would save her own life. Now, she takes every chance she gets to encourage others to do the same.

"Organ donation is kind of a touchy subject; it is for some people," she said. "If they put a face with organ donation, maybe they'll realize it does affect a real person ... I was a school teacher living a normal life, but now here I am with a double lung transplant trying to encourage people to become organ donors."