Illness Teaches Gratitude

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by Kathleen Sheffer |

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My friend Rachael got married last month, something neither of us believed she would live to do when we first met at a summer camp for kids with heart disease. At Rachael and Jake’s rehearsal dinner, there was a lot of talk of what made their union possible. I mean, a lot they even thanked the CEO of, the dating website through which they first met.

Mainly, they emphasized all that has gone into keeping Rachael alive. Several of Rachael’s cardiologists were present at the wedding, each named and thanked in her dad’s speech. I was struck by the realization that the number of people Rachael and I have to thank for our lives is well above average.

Initially, I was upset by the idea that Rachael owed (her word, at times) so many different parties her life. Maybe it’s my own false guilt for being a burden on family and friends who have cared for me. Maybe it’s that I know Rachael has played the biggest role in her own survival, always refusing to accept poor prognoses. Or maybe it’s just that I wish our lives were less tenuous.

When my family gathers around the table to share what we are thankful for, it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the things we take for granted. Last year, I didn’t feel like I was taking much for granted. It took a long time for me to stop crying every time I caught my breath. My parents are still tearing up over our hikes together. I’m thankful to have the time to start taking some things for granted. Time to learn to stop reaching for my oxygen cannula as I get into bed. To fall asleep without worrying I won’t wake up. But as I acclimate to my new normal, I make a conscious effort not to forget how hard we all fought for my life.

Medications continue to keep me alive, and I will rely on healthcare professionals for the rest of my life. At every milestone, I have an above average number of people to thank for helping me reach it: my donor, my donor’s family, my parents, my sister, my extended family, my friends, my dog, my nurses, my doctors, my surgeons, and perfect strangers. Sometimes, it gets overwhelming, like a never-ending line of guests to greet.

As I thought more about the number of people Rachael and I have to thank, I thought about what a gift it is to have so many people doing whatever they can to keep us living, and living fully. What a gift to have so much love in our lives, and to recognize that love.

Last week, the world lost Mallory Smith, cystic fibrosis warrior, double-lung transplant recipient, daughter, friend, and the inspiration behind Lunges4Lungs. She writes in her blog,

Your life, even if you’re healthy, is a miracle, because your existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming, our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improbable events accumulating over millions of years to bring you, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.

Acknowledge that miracle. Existing is a rare gift, a privilege. It isn’t a right. Think of all those atoms that never ended up inside a human body.

So pick something, do something, to respect that miracle. Step up to the challenge of making your own meaning out of mere matter.

I like to think I’m exceptional, because someone else’s heart circulates my blood. But everyone has people to thank for their lives. If you’re not thankful for a cardiothoracic surgeon, maybe you’re thankful for the woman at Walgreen’s who administered this year’s flu shot. I know this is corny, but bear with me. Or don’t, I mean, you do you. Existing is a privilege, and impossible without others.

Rachael told me she didn’t want to be a sick bride. She didn’t want her illness to sour her special day. I watched in awe as she regained composure after each wave of nausea and danced through her exhaustion. Surrounded by the support system that helped along the way, Rachael displayed the same strength and perseverance that ensured her survival. She was a sick bride, and her day was truly special because of it.

Rachael and Kathleen

Rachael and I pose at the wedding reception. I’m holding her oxygen tank out of the frame. (Photo by Kimberlie Gamino.)

Loss and illness certainly accentuate the miracle of existence, but the spirit of a season based on gratitude allows us all to reflect on love. We can all be thankful for the love that goes into keeping us alive and making us, well, us.


Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


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