Doctors and nurses couldn’t believe what they were seeing. There running down the corridor of Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town was a girl, pulling her IV drip on wheels along with her – this just days after she’d had her double lung transplant.
After the long time she’d spent staring death in the face Lisa Marie Beyers (18) was just so relieved to be alive. Her long ordeal was over. Just a few months before doctors had delivered their grim prediction: if she didn’t get a lung transplant she’d wouldn’t make it to Christmas.
By this point her lungs were so badly damaged that she was constantly hooked up to an oxygen tank and even walking just a few metres left her feeling totally exhausted. A double lung transplant was her only hope but doctors warned that there was a chance that they might not find a suitable donor in time.
Her mother, Lana (41), becomes emotional as she recalls how it felt for her and her husband, Pieter (47), to spend months with their daughter’s life hanging in the balance.“We knew she needed new lungs before December,” she says.
Then, after Lisa had been on the transplant list for four months, they got the life-altering phone call.
They needed to get Lisa (18) to Groote Schuur in Cape Town immediately – there was a suitable donor.
“It was the best Christmas gift,” Lana says, welling up. “The biggest gift one could ever hope for,” Lisa adds.
Most of us take breathing for granted but even now more than three months since her transplant Lisa is still amazed when she looks down and sees her chest rising and falling.
“Before, when I breathed, my chest didn’t move – it just goes to show how collapsed my old lungs were. I could never breathe deeply,” she says as she chats to us at her parents’ home in Robertson in the Western Cape. “Imagine you have to permanently pinch your nose and only breathe through a thin straw. That was my ‘normal’ – that smothered, pressured feeling.”
Because there’s now so much more oxygen in her body she can finally taste her food and has a vastly improved sense of smell. “Everything’s different, but it’s such a good different,” she says.
At age two Lisa was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis – a congenital disease which causes irreversible lung damage.
The diagnosis came after she’d suffered a bout of bronchitis followed by pneumonia.“She just wasn’t getting better,” Lana recalls. “Her chest sounded like when you crumple a plastic bag.”
They were told that kids with the condition often don’t live long. Doctors warned that as Lisa grew her condition would worsen. “It took us a while to process the diagnosis but we decided to raise her as normally as possible.”
Lisa loves sport. She has competed in everything from tennis to athletics and has her national colours in karate. But as her condition worsened she could no longer participate in these activities.
“It debilitates you as it grows worse,” Lisa explains. Apart from the lungs, it also affects the pancreas. “My pancreas no longer emits enzymes. As a result, I have to take enzymes each time I eat in order to absorb nutrients.
"Eventually, not enough insulin is secreted, so I’m also diabetic. At primary school she was still “sort of normal”.
But since starting high school it became increasingly harder. There were infections and it took longer to recover each time.
"In Grade 10 it got really bad – so bad that I couldn’t play sport at all anymore.”
Her typical treatment regime would take her an hour before school each morning and another hour every evening before bedtime. Nebulising with saline and antibiotics to thin the mucus, a half-an-hour physiotherapy session to help loosen the mucus, handfuls of pills and insulin shots. By Grade 11 she couldn’t go to school anymore.
“The past two years were horrific. I weakened to the point of permanently needing oxygen. Every two to three weeks I’d be in hospital for intravenous treatment [antibiotics and feeding],” Lisa tells us.
But she says she couldn’t just sit still and do nothing. “I started doing beauty therapy courses and opened a salon at home.”
Shortly before her transplant her lungs were functioning at only 19%. She shows us a picture of her other faithful companion during the dark times: her pug, Popcorn.
“He’s my shadow.” She tells how when she would have a coughing fit he would lie with his head on her chest until it was over. “Animals sense things,” Lana says. “He watched over her.”
She'll forever be grateful to the donor’s family. Rules dictate that the identity of the donor must remain secret but what she does know is that it was a fit person whose lungs were almost the perfect size for her.
Lisa also lavishes praise on the team at Groote Schuur. During the nine-hour operation her anxious parents received updates every two hours from the operating theatre. “There were very few hiccups,” Lisa tells us. "But doctors did say they had to remove her old lungs extremely carefully because they were so damaged.
"They were at the point of disintegration. I was literally on borrowed time.
"Lung transplant patients are often kept in medically induced comas for a few days after the operation to help them recover.
"But four hours after the op I was awake. My ventilator was removed the same day and I was breathing on my own.
"By day three I started walking, and on day seven I gave my physio a heart attack because I was running down the corridor."
She was discharged from hospital about two weeks after the transplant. Her lungs are now functioning at about 84% - it could take up to a year before they reach maximum capacity. She says it’s hard to describe the wonderful feeling of being able to breathe again.
“To not wake up at night anymore because I can’t breathe . . ."
She’s accepted the fact that she has to take anti-rejection medication permanently, as well as insulin for diabetes – it pales in comparison to her former treatment regime. Within two months of her transplant she was allowed to start jogging – and celebrated by completing a 5 km Parkrun in the Robertson winelands to raise awareness for organ donation.
She’ll complete her matric certificate this year via correspondence, and she’s impatiently waiting for her sternum to heal from the transplant so she can return to karate and get her black belt.
“She still has to be careful of hard knocks,” Lana says.
As we’re leaving she excitedly tells us what else she has planned for her future.“I want to go shark-cage diving, go up in a hot-air balloon, go parachuting . . . My dad doesn’t understand why, when I’ve just gained a new life, I want to go jumping out of an aeroplane. Because I can!
"I’ve been given a second chance to do everything I’ve always wanted to.”
& One organ donor can save up to seven lives, Lisa says. Find more information on the Organ Donor Foundation’s website: odf.org.za.
Pictures: Jacque Stander/Supplied