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.

Gabriella-Balasa-Traveling-Quote-Orginal

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.

Gabriella-Balasa-Traveling-Nebulizer-Featured-Rectangle
To continue reading this article, please visit the CF Foundation Blog.

26 Years and Counting with CF

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.

To read the original article, please click here.

Ground-Breaking Procedure. A major step for science, medicine, the human condition

by Mary Bulman; Independent UK

“Woman spends record six days without lungs thanks to ground-breaking procedure”

Yes you’ve read that correctly.
Yes, it reads six days.

A true miracle! Definitely an understatement.

Though it’s been over a year since this procedure was carried out, it’s one that I believe cannot be shared enough. A huge step for medicine and science- but perhaps a larger one for the human condition and the willingness to live and fight.

“I still don’t believe it happened. It seems very surreal.” says patient Melissa Benoit.
And that’s because it is, Ms. Benoit.

After coming down with the flu the last year 2016, Ms. Benoit was taken from her home in Burlington, Canada to the ICU in a nearby hospital located right outside of Toronto, Canada.  Doctor’s made the spilt decision to go through with a first time procedure in order to save her life. After becoming resistant to most antibiotics, bacteria began to move throughout her body, eventually causing her to lapse into septic shock. One by one her organs started shutting down, due to the decline of her blood pressure.

“Although it had never been carried out before, doctors decided to remove her lungs entirely.”

“What helped us is the fact that we knew it was a matter of hours before she would die,” said Dr Shaf Keshavjee, one of three surgeons who operated on her. “That gave us the courage to say — if we’re ever going to save this woman, we’re going to do it now.”

To learn more about Ms. Benoit and the new breed of surgery that was carried out please continue onto the article below:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/woman-six-days-without-lungs-waiting-list-donor-organ-burlington-ontario-melissa-benoit-world-first-a7547936.html

Three Ways CF Helps Me in My Career

Guest blog by: Reid D’Amico

Living with CF is hard. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to pivot with many of CF’s new challenges. This has largely been an iterative process of successes and failures with plenty of feedback, patience, and assistance from friends and family. However, I’d like to focus on a few elements of CF that I believe have augmented my professionalism. These are elements that have taken time to develop, and are still being developed, but I believe that CF has provided a solid foundation for this professional growth. Continue reading Three Ways CF Helps Me in My Career

Introducing Jerry Unplugged!

We are thrilled to announce that Jerry Cahill has launched, Jerry Unplugged, a new blog segment on his site.  Jerry is a Delta F508 and R117H #CF patient who is post double-lung transplant by 6 years this April! Not only is Jerry an advocate for #CFAwareness, but he is a coach, athlete, and friend! Join him on his journey as he shares his insights, experiences, and explains why he cannot fail❗
Stay tuned for much more of #JerryUnplugged!

Read the first blog here: http://www.jerrycahill.com/who-am-i/

Continue reading Introducing Jerry Unplugged!

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

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

Strangers Help Give Woman in Need of 2nd Double Lung Transplant Her Dream Wedding

“We’ve kind of realized that if we wait it might not happen,” she said.

Caleigh Haber has been dreaming of her wedding day for as long as she can remember, but she never realized it would come like this.

The 27-year-old, who has cystic fibrosis and is currently in need of her second double lung transplant, is about to marry the love of her life, Bryan Takayama. It’s an exciting celebration with a somber undertone.

Continue reading Strangers Help Give Woman in Need of 2nd Double Lung Transplant Her Dream Wedding

We Can, Right? – Guest blog from USACFA Fall 2017 Scholarship Winner

By: Jacob Greene

Cystic Fibrosis is an awkward disease. Whether it’s coughing attacks in the middle of tests, the infamous CF digestive issues (for professionalism’s sake I will leave it at that, but you know what I mean), or loud treatments in the morning and at night, there are many awkward aspects to cystic fibrosis. CF’s median life expectancy is no different. Continue reading We Can, Right? – Guest blog from USACFA Fall 2017 Scholarship Winner