By Ella Balasa
The day I was born, the median life expectancy of someone living with cystic fibrosis was 31. Although I haven’t reached that median yet, I feel like I’ve beaten the odds.
During past birthdays, my parents, brother, and I celebrated with cakes filled with raspberry layers and chocolate frosting. The cake always had my name written across the top in big, pink, block letters, and the number of candles matched the number of years lived. I remember my dad’s voice quivering just slightly by the time he sang the last “Happy Birthday” lyric. I think that he sheds an extra tear of joy, metaphorically, for each year I get older. He’s happier than the year before, that I’m one year closer to living the long life he hopes and prays his little girl would have.
I know my parents have always had a seed of heartache that they’ve kept hidden far in the back of their thoughts, watered by the knowledge that they may outlive their youngest daughter. It’s a feeling unknown to me; I can only imagine the fear.
I realize that my disease continues to progress with each passing year, causing a gradual decline in the intensity of accomplishable physical activities. My birthday is somewhat of a grim reminder of what I’ve lost over time. It’s marked by at least one less thing I can do.
Toward the end of my high school years, my brother was my exercise coach. He was always encouraging (sometimes nagging) me to do frog hops down the driveway and sprints from the mailbox to the stop sign on the corner. I also was running about 1 mile, or half of one, in my neighborhood on the days I felt extra motivated. One early summer day, at the end of my loop, about half a block before I reached the stop sign on my corner, I felt the urge to cough. When I got to the corner, I started coughing globs of pure blood while bracing myself against the sign. It was one of the last times I ran. That was the year I turned 18.
When I turned 21, I stopped working out at a gym and instead got a treadmill and weights at home because I had started to require supplemental oxygen while exercising. Without the extra oxygen, my blood oxygenation levels would dip into a range that could cause damage to my heart. My lungs began failing at the job they are required to do: supply oxygen from the air into my blood vessels and to the rest of my organs.
I was using a nasal cannula and carrying around a machine that puffed loudly with every breath, but I couldn’t allow people to see me as abnormal. I still have a hard time being in public with the supplemental oxygen, and although I don’t yet require using it constantly, it’s caused my illness to become visible rather than invisible, as it typically was — and I struggle with that.
Last year, when I was 25, I learned what it feels like to do a 500-pound deadlift. Except I wasn’t in a competition. I was bringing just two bags of groceries into my house from my car less than 50 feet away. During infection exacerbations in my lungs, I am unable to walk at a normal pace, much less carry anything, due to my airways feeling like they are the diameter of a toothpick, and the lack of oxygen my body is receiving. During these times, I feel my body needing the extra oxygen that I sometimes deprive it of because of my unwillingness to show the signs of my disease.
Based on this column thus far, it might seem as though I lament on the difficulties. Honestly, I don’t notice much when my breathing becomes less limited. It’s easier to notice when my breath is restricted and I feel my body producing less, functioning less.
Despite these reflections on my inabilities, I don’t remember my birthdays for all the things I couldn’t do in that year. I do remember everything I could and did do, both on that day and the 364 days in between. For my 10th birthday, I remember having a picnic in the park and running around the playgrounds playing hide-and-seek. For my 21st, I remember going to a local bar, Baja Bean, and getting the coveted sombrero so everyone would know I was celebrating my big day. For my most recent, the 26th, I rode in a small seaplane over the city, then landed into the river.
Birthdays have always been, and always will be, a celebration of my life. It’s the progression over time, despite my best efforts to stay as healthy as I possibly can, that I’ve found to be somewhat discouraging at times.
When I blow out my 27 candles next year, there will certainly be a diminishment in my physical abilities. But I won’t be dwelling on it. I’ll be thinking about all of the new things I did, the places I went, and the people I met.
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