“You think all this is important, but all that really matters is loving people and being kind.”
So it’s been a year since Caitlin’s transplant. A fact that’s as hard to believe as her absence.
This post from that day, if the lungs had come a month earlier, before the weeks on ECMO…. … too painful to think about, really.
I’m going to let Caitlin’s words take over, with thanks to Kate S, an old friend of hers who has most recently, graciously, shared her correspondence. The “Caitlin book” that I’m writing has a lot to do with this search for faith.
Emails with Kate
can i ask you something personal? If you don’t want to answer I understand. I have never been that religious but i have always had faith. i hope that makes sense to you. as i get older i struggle more and more with the reality side of my brain and the side that wants to hope and pray for the best, and have faith. i am always so interested in how people like you — really smart people that is — stay so solid in their beliefs and faith. i don’t know, i guess i am just curious about it. then sometimes things happen that make me feel like i am more connected, and that it is possible. i’ve been trying this thing where i “dialogue” with my illness. it was recommended by an astrologer who did my chart, and it is something i kind of do a lot anyway but in a different way. its like visualizing sessions of going through your body and imagining healing. but this takes it a step further with actual talking to your disease. anyway i was lying in bed this morning doing that for like half an hour. andrew was there, he was like half awake, we were just laying around. anyway i never said i was doing that. then when he got up and was walking into the living room he just said casually “i feel like god was in the room this morning.” It was so odd, that is not a normal thing for him to say (obviously). It was just kind of cool.
Email to Nick
So what I always loved about Early Christian art was that it was so …early. Really the beginnings of Christianity , and thinking about what that meant is neat for me. This was years before even the crusades, the first really violent time in the name of “Christ” (well except for Christ himself obviously ). So there was violence of course … In Rome and in the Byzantine empire. But Christianity hadn’t even reached a point yet where people were “fighting in the name of the Catholic Church” etc and things were still more modest.
You can see the change in how Christ is portrayed in the art in these small churches. He’s still a shepherd but he’s wearing roman robes and looks more regal. So it’s the beginnings of it…. But it’s unlikely that these religious people then were implementing awful atrocities on people
I think the area seems beautiful and peaceful. But also something I can’t really place, and don’t necessarily need to figure out. I just would like to go.
There is always going to be bad in the world. I think that is what makes being good so important.
I know all the dates.
Yesterday a year ago was the last night Caitlin would ever sleep in her own bed. That night, she was so weak she did not have the strength to sit in the bathtub and let me wash her hair. I was so alarmed I emailed her doctor at 10pm.
On the 16th she was admitted to the hospital for the last time.
I wonder now, how many times in her life was she admitted to a hospital? I don’t know that I could even guess.
After I went home for the night, she texted me
Caitlin: Had to get an echo. Feel sick. And tired and can’t breathe. Love you. Hope you get rest.
Text message: 11/17/16 9:14am
Caitlin: My score is 70
Maryanne: Oh my God. Oh wow. What happened?
Caitlin: Dr hayanga came in. Because of my oxygen
Maryanne: What did hayanga say
Caitlin: He was optimistic. Very. He was Iike, we expect to get offers.
Caitlin: Andrew says we HAVE to be hopeful
Maryanne: We ARE hopeful. This is going to happen.
I drove to the hospital that morning with a light, happy heart. It was finally going to happen. The head surgeon came in and said he had been up all night fielding offers for her. None of them were a match, but with so many offers coming in, and with her score so high, a match seemed imminent.
She was on a lot of oxygen but she was stable, and felt much better than she had at home. Finally, finally, finally, after 2 1/2 years, it was going to happen.
Yesterday, another CF tragedy occurred. Mallory Smith of California, who, like Caitlin, could only be transplanted at UPMC and moved to Pittsburgh to wait, received her transplant in September. Her recovery was hard but she was recovering. She was on the other side. Just a few weeks ago, she celebrated her 25th birthday. Soon after, when the docs removed her last chest tubes, she said, “Today is the happiest day of my life.”
Then a pneumonia took hold in her chest. Without an immune system to help her body fight the infection, she became sicker and sicker. The cepacia bacteria that had damaged her native lungs began to destroy the new lungs as well.
We were all hoping for a miracle of science for Mallory, but she slipped these surly bonds yesterday afternoon, her most beloved people by her side.
She was brilliant and kind and everything wonderful. A few years ago she wrote an essay that contains these words:
My life is a miracle because I should be dead. 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. Let the whole, the human, be altruistic, be greater than the sum of the parts, the selfish genes of our genome.
Set an intention and get after it feverishly, frenetically. Give back what we’ve taken by paying it forward, save a life, smile at a stranger, climb a mountain leaving nothing but footprints, inspire a child, take care of your body, bring happiness through laughter, plant a tree, and sometimes, just breathe and exhale a little bit of calming energy to your environment.
Give back in whatever small way you can, any time you can, because we are not small. No one of us can do everything, but all of us can do anything. Do it because we have survived, and that is a miracle. Do it because why wouldn’t you? Do it to justify your life.
I hope Caitlin found you, Mallory.
I am not the first person to compare time to a river, but from my desk here, the comparison is ever-present, the imagery apt. Drop something into the river and off it goes. It’s never coming back.
It’s six months today. And a Tuesday, just as it was then. Another solstice.
And the great world spins.
Inspirations–4 of Them
When Caitlin was born, she weighed 9.4 lbs and measured 21 inches long. For the first year of her life, until she started developing one pneumonia after another and ‘failed to thrive,’ she was in the 95th percentile for height & weight. And when she was little, I mean really little–1st-2nd grade little– she loved to run. She could run as easily as anyone else and always won the races.
Years later, we would all do 23andMe and see that she and her naturally-athletic father shared a special genetic variant.
I always wondered what if.
As a college freshman in DC, her up-and-down health was at a ‘good’ level and she rediscovered running–doing miles at a time, big loops between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capital. Even after she transferred to Boston College because of declining health, she liked to run when she felt well enough. But by 2004 or so, she needed oxygen to sleep and to fly, and to do pretty much anything that raised her heart rate. (Blood oxygen levels drop with these activities.)
By 2011, she had to move to an apartment with parking and an elevator. She needed to plan trips around what kind of walking or climbing would be involved. But she and Andrew discovered that she could still ‘hike.’ Andrew would carry her up a trail and then she could walk down.
Eventually, she bought one of these things: an adult carry pack. It made her weight easier for Andrew to carry.
The last couple of years, with hope for new lungs a reality, she cautiously let herself hope that she would really run again. And just last fall, she bought herself this book, and had a plan for recovering, post-transplant, by climbing all the featured stairways.
By chance, two of Caitlin’s cousins challenged themselves physically and mentally this past weekend, in honor of Caitlin. In Australia, Janet Jordan faced her lifelong fear of heights and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge to raise funds for the pediatric Cystic Fibrosis Unit at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, NSW.
On her page, Janet talks about a dream she had in which Caitlin challenged her to climb the bridge. As the day of the climb approached, nerves set in. On Saturday, she wrote, “Today’s the day I face my fears, and keep my promise.”
Her next update: “I did it!! What started at 4.30 with an hour long safety induction ended at 7.50pm with the greatest feeling in the world. Photos to come.”
Back in western Massachusetts, Caitlin’s cousin Melissa Bavaro Klevans and her husband Sam challenged themselves to a 26-Mile, 1-Day EXTREME Hike.
⬆️ One of those peaks is called Misery Mountain.
The hike started pre-dawn and took them 13 hours to complete. It was tough and toward the end, Melissa’s feet were in such pain she didn’t think she would be able to finish. But she looked at Caitlin’s photograph, took off her boots, and hiked to the end in her socks. She shared her thoughts with me:
“After the hike I was able to process everything that I had gone through on the mountains and it came down to this one little thought. It’s NOTHING compared to what my sweet and beautiful cousin had to go through. Nothing.”
About the breakfast the morning after the hike, she said, “We were able to speak if we wanted to. I hate public speaking, but I needed to say something. I talked about organ donation. I expressed the importance of going online and signing up and that the license sticker was not enough. The great thing about me moving past my fear was that I got through to people. I had at least four people come up to me after and thank me for my speech. They had no idea, as most people don’t. That was powerful.”
While I was in Pittsburgh, I met some incredible people. One of them was Barry Lavery, who went into the hospital for routine surgery three years ago and discovered he had ALS.
Like Caitlin, Barry has faced his fate with grace and humor and tenacity. He and Caitlin had lots more in common: a love of philosophy, a love of birds. Wise, witty senses of humor. But they never got to meet.
He’s now on hospice care and he tells me that when he “hops his perch,” he’s going to seek out Caitlin. “We will drink good Haitian rum, grow wings and feathers and soar…”
Last week Nick and I were out on the river at dusk, and the air was full of the sounds of birds and waterfowl. I sent Barry a little video, to share the moment. He texted a response that ended, “Let the river heal you. Remember the quote from a River runs through it.”
Caitlin was actively listed for a lung transplant on April 24, 2014. We were ready, expectant, full of hope.
She kept herself strong and she kept herself busy.
She was grateful.
She had plans.
We never, ever expected that she would have to wait 2 1/2 years. But when she went into the hospital for the last time, with her high score, she was told that offers were coming in. We figured it would happen any moment. We were excited and lighthearted, and on the night of November 20, she asked me to push her chair through the hospital as fast as I could, to music.
In a just world, she would still be with us.
Spread the word, far and wide.
I’ve never been one to say “life’s not fair,” or to be angry about Caitlin’s CF, or about her (not-inevitable) decline and need for a lung transplant. I’ve always tried to be philosophical and optimistic and I truly do believe that tough experiences ‘grow your soul’ and make you a more compassionate human being.
Nick and I are in Florida, at a hotel with an atmosphere that feels more like our beloved Virgin Islands than “Florida.” The hotel plays soft reggae in the background. There are palm trees and thatched buildings and the water here is a Caribbean blue.
Being an only child, Caitlin tagged along on pretty much every trip we ever took–either by herself, or with Katie, or her boyfriend.
So I keep imagining her here–ambling in her slow way across the pool deck. I see her big sunglasses, her long hair, and I keep thinking I was a fool to have had one hundred percent faith that the transplant would happen, and that she would prevail.
I want to go back and cherish every minute even more than I did.
I keep thinking of her first days on ECMO and how the surgeon said, “We’re going to get you transplanted, Caitlin.” And, “I have a good feeling about this weekend.”
He was trying to be positive, and I’m sure he truly believed his own words.
I keep thinking of my own words, written in Cascade, where I describe a feeling that has always haunted me and which haunts me now:
There had been other such days—the long-ago morning her mother took sick, the afternoon the telegram spelled out the fact of her father’s first heart attack. At the ends of those days, Dez had looked back through the blur of hours to the innocent mornings, which started so normally. An egg, a piece of buttered toast, plans for this or that. And if those days had stayed normal, if the flu had passed through her mother’s body, through her brother’s, if her father’s heart had not seized, there would be no marveling at the day’s normalcy, no reeling from being blindsided.
No, normalcy is taken for granted until it’s gone.
Deep thanks to Bryan Marquard and The Boston Globe for writing this beautiful tribute to Caitlin, and publishing it on the front page today: Caitlin O’Hara, who brought compassion to others while she sought a transplant, dies at 33
Caitlin’s death was ultimately caused by her too-long wait. The surgery itself was technically easier than the surgeons had anticipated. That part had gone very well. Her problems were all caused by having been on life support for too long. If she had received those perfect lungs earlier, there would only have been a happy story to tell.
One of the most important lessons that can come out of this tragedy is how vital is the need for organ donor awareness. In lieu of any flowers or gifts to us, please register today to be an organ, tissue, and cornea donor. (The DMV “organ donor” sticker is not enough.) And please help to dispel the wrongheaded myths about donation. Organ allocation is one of the most tightly-regulated and ethical institutions in the country. Register as an organ donor