Traveling With CF: Plan Ahead, Be Flexible, and Accept Help

By Ella Balasa

Looking up at the rising wall of stone, sweat droplets beading on my forehead, I think about the hundreds of steps between me and the top of the walls of the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia. I want to see the view from the top, but I feel the discomfort of what-ifs welling inside me … what if I hold up the line going up the stairs because I need breaks? What if I pass out from shortness of breath? What if my lung collapses again from taking such heavy breaths with only 25 percent FEV1?

Those were my thoughts last August during my European adventure.

The first six months of 2017 had been difficult. I had three surgeries — each two months apart — on my lung because of a reoccurring lung collapse. I spent weeks in the hospital and then weeks recovering at home. I went from barely walking around my house to building up the strength to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes a day, only to restart the process each time after the next two surgeries. There were moments I never thought I would get stronger, that I’d be confined to my house with 24/7 supplemental oxygen, chained to an oxygen concentrator that allowed me to breathe.

Slowly I got stronger and — after the third surgery — the lung held. I had been planning this trip since before my medical issues began, and I wanted to make it a reality. I already had to cancel a trip to Vegas for my 25th birthday and a Fourth of July get-together with my best friends. I would be heartbroken if I had to add this trip to that list.

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In the days leading up to my trip, the fear of another lung collapse (pneumothorax) still terrified me. A pneumothorax occurs when air is trapped between your chest wall and your lung. This trapped air pushes on the lung, allowing less room for the lung itself in the chest cavity, thereby collapsing it.

When there is a decrease in air pressure at higher altitudes, air molecules expand, occupying more space. Because of my history of lung collapses, there was a chance that I might have a slight air pocket between my lung and chest wall. If so, the altitude change in an airplane could have expanded this air pocket, making the collapse much larger and dangerous.

Some might think it’s too risky to travel outside the country if you have a chronic illness, where the possibility of needing medical attention is high, and the constant awareness of symptoms and management of medications and treatments are a necessity.

There certainly are times when the risks outweigh the benefits. In my situation, there will always be a risk, but the level of potential pleasure to be gained makes an attempt worthwhile.

Planning for the Trip

Being prepared was important and eliminated some of the anxiety associated with travel. It was also necessary to relax about the parts that were not in my control.

I made sure I had my flight insured and bought travel insurance, and I carried the documents with me. I counted and packed the amount of medications I would need, plus extra.

I did not worry about packing light. I require the amount of luggage of a family of four. In the past, this has embarrassed me. We all stereotype women and their extra bags, but I need: A rolling luggage bag for my vest, a roller for my oxygen concentrator, my suitcase of clothes and personal products, and a carry-on backpack of medications. I do not check any of my nebulizing medications and machine, inhalers, enzymes, and antibiotics in case my suitcase gets lost. These are the items I have to have, and it would be a nightmare tracking them down in a foreign country.

I opted for special services through the airline for assistance with getting from one gate to the next between flights and to help carry heavy bags. Having 25 percent lung function, it’s tiresome to walk distances, and it’s not possible for me to carry anything remotely heavy. This was the first time I had used this service. I’ve never liked being seen as different or needing special accommodations. However, I have realized, as my disease progresses, that doing everything everyone else does is not always possible, and it’s OK.

And, it turned out to be a wise decision. As I got off one of my flights, I was met by an airline employee with a wheelchair and a sign with my name. I had 20 minutes before my next flight was to depart JFK airport in New York, and my gate was at the other end of the terminal. With only 10 minutes to go, this gentleman started running as he wheeled me through the airport. By the time we got to the gate, he was profusely sweating. I was the last one to board! I would have missed my flight without this assistance.

What I Learned

First, I learned to be comfortable with strangers seeing me doing CF-related stuff, like wearing a mask and using an oxygen concentrator on an airplane, and doing a breathing treatment on a park bench, while coughing and spitting into tissues. Here is a picture of me doing exactly that in Split, Croatia.

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To continue reading this article, please visit the CF Foundation Blog.

A Letter To My Donor

Jerry Unplugged: A blog by Jerry Cahill

Six years ago, on April 18, 2012 I received the ultimate gift – a healthy set of lungs.  

This is my transplant story and finally, an open letter to my donor Chris who gave me a second chance at life. 

On April 17th I was called to Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) in New York City. They had a perfect set of lungs on paper for me and simultaneously while I was on my way in, a team went to harvest and evaluate these lungs, which were located out of state.  It’s a bit of coordination for the doctors to determine the health of the lungs. Were they damaged? Were there contusions or other imperfections? Were these lungs meant for me? The team at CUMC would make the final decision on whether they were a match or not. It was the sixth time that I’d been called in for the transplant, so I wasn’t getting too excited, but I also didn’t let myself get too down. This time the news was good – the transplant was a go! Before I could blink, my team began to prep me. My worn out, diseased lungs were about to be replaced with clear, healthy lungs. My life was about to be forever changed.  

Before I went into surgery, my lung function was at a dismal 19% and I spent eighteen hours a day pumping myself with medications and intravenous antibiotics to stay alive.  This wasn’t me. I was a coach, an athlete and an advocate for living a healthy life with cystic fibrosis. This wasn’t healthy! My quality of life was non-existent, and quite frankly, I was embarrassed each time I struggled to walk up a flight of stairs.  

As I was wheeled into the operating room, I remember saying to my family, “Go into the waiting room and wait. I’ll see you later.” What was I thinking?   

When I woke up I truly was a changed man.  It was a foreign feeling  for me to have clear lungs and when I took my first breaths I told my surgeon, “these lungs are too big – I think you stuffed them in.” This wasn’t a joke, I was being serious.  I was grateful and knew this wouldn’t just be a second chance at life for me, but for my donor Chris.  We were in this together now. 

The last six years have been quite a journey – and that’s very much how I view life – as a journey.  I’ve written letters to my donor’s family each year, but they haven’t responded yet. I wholeheartedly respect their decision, but I felt strongly compelled to write an open letter to this amazing man Chris, who saved my life. 

Dear Chris……

To read Jerry’s letter to Chris, please click here

How One Conversation Led Me to Being More Intentional About My Life

By: Ella Balasa

Would I ever live long enough to fall in love? Would I be able to graduate college? Would I be remembered for making some kind of impact on the world before I was gone? Would I get to travel to destinations where the breaking waves crashed against a rocky shore and the sea mist sprayed as I breathed deeply, and beside me stood …

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I’m startled back to reality. I sit in a hospital bed, surrounded by my parents in chairs on either side of me. I’m on the lumpy foam mattress, where I sit cross legged and my butt sinks at least 4 inches straining my back and adding to the pain the past few weeks — and this conversation — have caused me. My dad sits, lips pursed as normal when he listens intently. We are all listening to my doctor talk about my declining health, about my recent episode of pneumonia, and what my future may hold.

“No one knows the future,” I think, as the doctor speaks. My mind jumps again to that ocean scene, only it isn’t me standing on the shore, I’m now observing the scene from above, as if in spirit. Observing a couple embrace and I feel a strange sense of sadness, anger, and jealousy.

“It’s time to consider a lung transplant.” Those words, uttered from my pediatric CF doctor 6 years ago, made me, in an instant, think about all the joys of life I hadn’t gotten to experience yet.

Why me? That’s the first thought many people have when they can’t accept the reality of what’s happening. We try to answer unanswerable questions.

Later that summer, my parents and I followed doctors’ advice and scheduled a week-long transplant evaluation. A week of what I still consider to be grueling medical tests, even compared to other lung complications I have developed since. In the end, the transplant evaluators concluded I was not quite in the transplant window at the time. That fall, my health started to stabilize. I started my second year of college and I felt myself withdraw from the world.

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Introducing our Newest Board Members!

Rachel Steinman

Hi! My name is Rachel Steinman, I’m 29 years old, and I’m super excited to be a member of the USACFA board.

I was diagnosed with CF at the age of 16 and have been very fortunate to have had fairly stable health throughout my life thus far. 

No matter one’s level of health, USACFA is an important outlet for our community. CF is a complicated disease and it affects every patient in a unique way. For me, having an online community has helped me both learn more about this disease, and feel less isolated in the process. 

I graduated from the University of Miami with degrees in Journalism and Sociology in 2009, and I spent a year volunteering with Americorps shortly after. A few years into my career I decided to quit my job and move to Tel Aviv, Israel for a change of lifestyle and a marketing position with a tech company. I moved back home to NY after a year to be close to my family.

I grew up on Long Island and currently reside in NYC with my boyfriend where I continue to work in digital marketing. I enjoy cooking, traveling with my boyfriend, and spending time with friends and family.

I believe I’ve been able to maintain good health with the help of a great team of doctors at Columbia Presbyterian in Manhattan, a positive attitude towards life with CF, lots of acupuncture and cupping therapy, and a very loving, supportive family.

As a new member of the board, I’m excited to be joining both the blog and social media committees, so please look out for future posts from me!

Amy Sylvis

Hello! My name is Amy Sylvis and I am so grateful to be a member of the USACFA board. I have been an avid reader of the CF Roundtable since the late 90s and I am forever grateful for how much I have learned over the past 2 decades from the publication. I fiercely believe that all people with cystic fibrosis should have access to the best care and latest knowledge – and I’m thrilled to be able to contribute to this prestigious organization. My specific passions include hemoptysis, aspergillus, CFRD and decreasing quality of treatment variation across CF centers in the United States.

I am 36 years old, diagnosed at 6 months old. I earned my Bachelors of Science in Business and Bachelors of Arts in International Relations from the University of Southern California as well as my Masters in Business Administration from USC. I have worked full time mostly in biotech and pharma, which continues to be my passion despite my health forcing me to leave work in 2017. In my spare time you can find me reading non-fiction, watching college football and traveling. My husband and I were married in August 2017, and we live in Los Angeles, CA with our little cocker spaniel/dachshund mix.

CF Roundtable invites you to write for the upcoming issue!

CF Roundtable invites adults with CF to write for our Spring 2018 issue. All submissions are due on March 15th.

The Focus Topic is “Maintaining Mental Health With CF”. Some questions to ponder as you write are:  Does your CF affect your mental state? What do you do to deal with it? Do you have any information to share with our readers on how to deal with depression or other mental conditions that are caused by having CF? Continue reading CF Roundtable invites you to write for the upcoming issue!

Introducing ‘This Lung Life,’ a Column by Ella Balasa

Below is the first post of an original column that will be published once monthly. Enjoy!

Fulfillment to me means achieving a dream, pursuing a passion, striving to be happy every day, and finding joy in what I do. To say I did my best and made every moment count. I believe having those dreams and feelings of fulfillment comes from motivation. Motivation to do and be better in whatever parameters I set for myself. My motivation for life comes in the most innate form — the will to live. To live the fullest life I can, in the time I am given to live it.

Having cystic fibrosis has shaped me to want to live in this way. My motivation to Introducing ‘This Lung Life,’ a Column by Ella Balasahave this attitude has grown with each passing year, though it’s taken time to gain the maturity, experiences, and confidence to find my identity and purpose.
Continue reading Introducing ‘This Lung Life,’ a Column by Ella Balasa

We want to hear from you! CF Roundtable article submission deadline soon

CF Roundtable Article submissions are due December 15th.

The Focus Topic for the Winter 2018 issue is “Becoming A Parent With CF”.  If you – our adult readers with CF – have thought about becoming a parent, what decisions and considerations did you make? Are you a parent or do you help raise a nephew, niece or another child relative? Whether you already have children or want to start a family, tell us about your journey to parenthood.

Continue reading We want to hear from you! CF Roundtable article submission deadline soon

A Tribute to Everyone with Cystic Fibrosis

Dear CF Roundtable Blog readers,

I would like to share a drawing that I recently created. Occasionally, in my spare time, between four treatments a day, working, cooking food, attempting exercise, and the intermittent phone call or meet up with friends, I hone my artistic skills. In all honesty, it is maybe every few months, but when I do create something, it brings me much pleasure. Cystic fibrosis, the greatest blessing and the greatest curse in my life, obviously affects me daily yet provides the most inspiration.

Continue reading A Tribute to Everyone with Cystic Fibrosis

“There Are No Alligators in Heaven!” Scores 4-star Review from Portland Books

https://www.benzinga.com/pressreleases/17/09/p10005705/there-are-no-alligators-in-heaven-scores-4-star-review-from-portland-b

Portland Books Editor-in-Chief Whitney Smyth calls the remarkable story of a family wrestling with cystic fibrosis, “a book that manages to be many things: a heartfelt biography … a Continue reading “There Are No Alligators in Heaven!” Scores 4-star Review from Portland Books

You can write for CF Roundtable!

Submit your article by September 15th, 2017 to be included in the autumn issue.

CF Roundtable thrives on articles written by our columnists, directors and you! If you would like to share your story or an experience of dealing with life and CF, we would welcome it. Articles can be any length, Continue reading You can write for CF Roundtable!