How a double lung transplant gave me a second chance at life and love

"To turn 50 this year, with my husband and children by my side, was truly a blessing I never expected," says Lisa Borkus.

By Fleur Guthrie
At the bottom of Lisa Borkus' wardrobe sits a box containing something she's held close to her heart for 45 years – her lungs! Her old ones anyway.
Five years ago, the cystic fibrosis (CF) sufferer's life was saved by a double lung transplant and the generosity of a donor.
When the surgeon asked her, "Should we bin these lungs or do you want to keep them?' Lisa didn't hesitate.
"I wanted to keep them! They've been a part of me my whole life," tells the Christchurch mother-of-two.
"One of my girls even asked their teacher if she could bring in 'mum's lungs' for show and tell at school. So we took them in and some kids were fascinated, yet horrified."
Because of the transplant, Lisa has been given more time to enjoy life with husband Tony and daughters Liana (in blue) and Analise.
Having CF means Lisa's body produces abnormally thick mucus that clogs her lungs, pancreas and other organs, leaving her open to severe respiratory and digestive issues.
Before the transplant, Lisa was in a wheelchair, weighing only 45kg and living on oxygen because her lung function was below 20 per cent.
"My body was shutting down and I knew I didn't have much longer," Lisa (50) tells the Weekly.
"All I could think about were my daughters, Analise (20) and Liana (14), and my goal to be here as long as possible for them."
After catching the flu and rapidly deteriorating, Lisa was bumped up onto the 'active' list for a transplant, with doctors saying she wouldn't survive the year without one.
Amazingly, only a week later, the call came saying viable donor lungs – the same size and blood type as Lisa's – were available and she and her husband Tony were to get on an emergency flight to Auckland.
"It was late Friday afternoon and we were in the middle of shifting back into our home after earthquake repairs," recalls Lisa, a database manager.
"I was in the operating theatre by 5am the next morning. There was no time to process it. But I hold my Christian faith dear and knew lots of people were praying for me, so I had this still peace about the transplant."
Waking up from the 10-hour surgery and being told she had suffered a cardiac arrest during the operation, her first thoughts were, 'Wow, I'm still here and
I can breathe.'
"It felt foreign to be able to take a big breath without feeling the tightness in my chest," says Lisa.
"Being able to speak a full sentence or enjoy a big belly laugh without coughing was phenomenal to me.
"I always used to be cautious not to laugh out loud at work or in public because it would send me into such a huge coughing fit, which was just awkward and embarrassing."
Lisa was transferred to Hearty Towers – the rehabilitation unit for transplant patients at Auckland's Greenlane Hospital – for three months while she adjusted to her new lungs, before she was allowed to go home. It was one "bumpy road" of a recovery.
"I was taking very hefty immune-suppressant drugs, which stops your body from attacking the new lungs as soon as they're put in. My body didn't react well to them and I was vomiting excessively for a number of months.
"So it took a while before I could feel that my quality of life was so much better," says Lisa, whose lungs are still functioning at 100%.
A year after the transplant, she wrote a letter to the donor's family to express her gratitude.
"I was told the donor was a woman around the same age as me, and presumably she died in a sudden accident. I'm so appreciative that she made herself a donor, but also that her family honoured that request. It's changed my life."
After Lisa lost her brother Ken to CF, she was determined to live life for both of them.
When Lisa was born in 1969, there were no heel prick tests done, as there are these days, to screen babies for CF. It was only picked up because her brother Ken, who was two years older, had developed problems and was diagnosed with the genetic disorder.
"My parents were told the life expectancy of someone with CF was five years. There wasn't all the advanced research or treatments that are available these days.
"Growing up, Ken was always much sicker than me and so he needed to have a lot of hospital admissions, and I didn't. I was in denial for a long period of time about having CF. It wasn't until my brother started to get really unwell as a teenager that I realised the seriousness of it."
Sadly, Ken died from CF, aged 26, in 1993. He had gone beyond the point of being eligible for a lung transplant.
"We were partly shocked when he died because he lived in Auckland and hid a lot of health things as he was so determined to be independent," reveals Lisa.
"After he passed, I wanted to honour him with the way I lived my life and do the things that he wasn't able to."
This included getting married and having children – which Lisa had never allowed herself to dream about because she wasn't sure she would make it
to adulthood.
"If my health hadn't been stable, Tony and I wouldn't have considered starting a family. But we enlisted the help of fertility treatment and tested Tony as
a potential genetic carrier
to make sure our children wouldn't get CF," she adds.
"So to turn 50 this year, with my husband and children by my side, was truly a blessing I never expected."

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