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Just breathing had been a challenge for longer than Tricia Lawrenson, 29, could remember. Diagnosed at six months with cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disorder that causes extensive lung damage, her life had been a string of hospitalizations, respiratory infections, and medications. "As I grew up I spent three weeks to two months each year in the hospital or at home on IV antibiotics," she says. At 19, when she fell in love with a guy named Nathan whom she met at church, she hesitated. "I had a big cloud over my head knowing I could die early," she says. "I didn't want to hurt him."
But Nathan persisted and in 2004 they got married at a beach club on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where he'd grown up. Tricia dreamed of having a baby, and so even though her doctors cautioned that pregnancy could be dangerous, the couple immediately started trying to conceive. After two years they began to lose hope: Tricia hadn't gotten pregnant and her cystic fibrosis was much worse. "She had more infections and hospitalizations and progressive respiratory failure," says David Zaas, MD, medical director of lung transplantation at Duke University School of Medicine. "Without a double lung transplant, we estimated she had six to 12 months to live." Doctors started the transplant paperwork and preparation, knowing that it could take months for lungs to become available. And she and Nathan gave up trying to have a child. "It wasn't going to happen," Tricia says. "Deciding to stop was a very sad moment for me."
But three months later, in a stroke of cruel irony, her dream came true. One day before moving to Durham to be closer to Duke, where the potential transplant was to be done, Tricia felt nauseous. With mounting apprehension, she gave herself a pregnancy test -- then two more. All three were positive. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "I wanted to be excited but was so scared at the same time." What seemed like a miracle was a huge complication. "The entire CF team was shocked," says Peter Kussin, MD, associate professor of medicine at Duke. "I was very fearful this would kill her." But despite the unanimous advice of the doctors, Tricia and Nathan wouldn't consider terminating the pregnancy. "We'd prayed for years for a child and now couldn't tell God, 'Thanks, but no thanks,'" she says. Her lung transplant would have to wait.
The pregnancy was dangerous for both Tricia and her baby, who were each given a 50 percent chance of surviving. "The doctors doubted the baby would reach full term, and my downward spiral picked up speed once I became pregnant," she says. When she was 17 weeks pregnant, pressure on her lungs from the growing baby began to make breathing nearly impossible, and in January 2008, after developing a sinus infection, Tricia was admitted to the intensive care unit. "Inside, I felt the baby would be okay," she says, "but physically, I felt I was dying."
With her baby at 24 weeks, Tricia needed to be put on a ventilator that would completely take over her breathing -- a difficult procedure for someone with cystic fibrosis, and one that the baby might not survive. In the OR, specialists were prepared for an emergency C-section. "We had so many people in there," Dr. Kussin says. "The coordination of care was amazing because there was no script -- it was a once-in-a-lifetime situation that hopefully I'll never see again." Out in the waiting area, family and friends got word that Tricia wasn't doing well, the baby was at risk and the crucial moment for the C-section had come. Nathan was relieved when an obstetrician emerged with a cell phone picture of Gwyneth Rose, born at one pound, six ounces. She was immediately whisked to the neonatal ICU, where she would spend the next four months.
Tricia emerged from a medically induced coma after nine days, still on the ventilator. By the end of February, she regained enough strength to be put back on the transplant list. Her rare blood type made a match difficult and doctors told the couple not to get their hopes up. But on April 2, Nathan's 27th birthday, a set of lungs became available. "I believe in the power of prayer and definitely consider that a miracle," Tricia says. She got her lifesaving, nine-hour transplant operation that night. Three weeks later she walked out of the hospital, breathing free.
Incredibly, her battle wasn't quite over. A few weeks later she developed post-transplant lymphoma, a complication of being on anti-rejection drugs in which a viral infection causes immune cells to become cancerous. Four rounds of chemotherapy finally knocked the cancer out. "We believe she's fully cured," Dr. Zaas says.
Today Tricia can finally embrace her second chance. Although Gwyneth, 4, needs glasses and goes to physical, occupational and speech therapy every week, she's thriving. The Lawrensons are back at their home on the Outer Banks, living a normal, happy life. "I hadn't gone more than a few months without a night in the hospital for 20 years," Tricia says. "Now, because of the lung transplant, I haven't been to the hospital for almost two years. When people ask how I'm doing, that's the best way to explain."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2012.