The Bucket List I Refuse to Make

Kathleen Sheffer avatar

by Kathleen Sheffer |

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Kathleen at Cliffs of Moher, Ireland. (Photo by Monica Sheffer)

During my senior year of high school, a teacher assigned the task of creating a “bucket list.” I was furious. A term popularized by the 2007 movie of the same name, a bucket list is a list of things one wants to do before dying — “kicking the bucket.”

Pulmonary hypertension kept me from being able to do so many “normal” things. That year, I already couldn’t play most sports, shower without doing a time-intensive bandage change, or eat breakfast without feeling nauseated. I had just lost a friend to the disease and was focused on surviving through graduation. I desperately wanted to be able to do ordinary things, and now my classmates and I were supposed to envision extraordinary goals for our future. No, thank you. I made a list of interesting things I had already done: swim with dolphins, visit Yosemite, go on a cruise, etc. I figured I could add items to it after I did them.

Secretly, though, I have a list — or, a vague outline of one that I don’t dare fill in. Writing it down would make the dreams real, and the failure real when I don’t complete it.

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Two years ago, I was coughing up blood, convinced I was mere minutes from death. All I wanted was to tell the people I love how much I care about them. I hadn’t been to every country I dreamed of visiting. So what?! How much or how little I’d accomplished in life held no value to me at that moment. I was so sad to leave the people I love behind. I wasn’t ready to go.

I fought through it. I cleared my airways little by little, screaming at the nurses attempting to put an IV in my cold, hard, purple arms. My oxygen saturation below 40 percent, I mixed a new syringe of intravenous Remodulin (the emergency room staff didn’t know how) and restarted my infusion pump.

Not only did I survive my near-death experience, a month later I woke up with my first set of healthy organs. My organ donor has made all those ordinary things I dreamed of doing possible. Five-minute showers, pancake breakfasts, family hikes, extended make-out sessions. Just doing my own laundry or cooking a meal without depleting my energy for the day are new accomplishments for me.

Writing this from a vacation in Europe, I’ve been able to check off some reach goals from the bucket list I never dared to write. Not only did I visit Ireland, a dream since childhood, I also walked 6 miles along the stunning Cliffs of Moher. I knew after the first steep hill that I could not have had the same experience without my organ donor.

Kathleen, right, and her sister, Monica, at Cliffs of Moher, Ireland on March 29, 2018. (Photo by Kathleen Sheffer)

In the movie “The Bucket List,” two terminally ill men race to complete a list of things they never got around to doing. Though we may not wish to think about it, we all know we are going to die. My high school teacher may have been on to something. It serves us to think about the things we want to do alongside the things we think we need to do to be successful in school and in our careers.

I thought my illness made me unlucky — cursed, even. Instead, it makes my accomplishments extraordinary. My illness makes me more intentional about the goals I set, and about completing them. So many times on this trip, I have made a decision to do something because of my awareness of life’s brevity. “YOLT!” my sister and I say simultaneously, and embark on a cross-country (Ireland is small) trip driving in a rental car on the opposite side of the road. “You Only Live Twice.” I’m living my second chance, without hesitation. Most importantly, though, the people I love know they matter most.


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.


Kaye Norlin avatar

Kaye Norlin

Cudos Kathleen!


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