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New breath of life: Former St. A teacher receives lung transplant to better life

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By Stephen Thomas

    SHEPHERDSVILLE - After the past year, Christa Altman is happy she’s able to enjoy a stroll.

    The stroll happens to be scheduled at Slugger Field in Louisville. It’s the Great Strides walk, hosted by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

    On Jan. 12, Altman became the recipient of a lung transplant. The former St. Aloysius school teacher had suffered for years from cystic fibrosis.

    Altman spent years on medications and machines that helped her breathing. Shortness of breath and coughing spells routinely hampered her regular lifestyle.

    A surgical procedure and a donor’s lungs became available to Altman. Upon receiving the news she and her family traveled to St. Louis.

    The surgery took place at Barnes Jewish Hospital, which includes one of the top lung transplant programs in the US. Founded in 1988, the program has performed more than 1,000 successful lung transplant procedures.

    The transplant process began with a 12-hour wait, while Altman and the lungs were both tested. The actual transplant surgery took another 12 hours to complete.

    Altman’s donor is still unknown to her; She was told the lungs were from a 30-year-old male that was much taller.

    Because of the physical size difference, a few lobes were removed from the lungs. Doctors broke Altman’s breast bone to fit the lungs, which she said was fairly common in a transplant.

    Altman was unconscious for three days, kept alive thanks to a bypass breathing machine. When she woke up on Sunday, she thought it was Wednesday.

    “I had no idea, the date, the people, I was hallucinating in the ICU,” she said. “Nobody told me that could happen, but it did.”

    Following a two-week hospital stay, Altman began to show improvement, first taking an initial walk. Her only setback was a panic attack when she was told her oxygen machine levels would be lowered.

    “By the time I left the hospital, I wasn’t on oxygen,” she said.

    According to Altman, three months is the usual protocol to adapt following a lung transplant. In St. Louis, she performed physical rehabilitation exercises five days a week, along with standard check-ups and blood work monitoring.

    “It was a very busy schedule, but I had a lot of energy so it wasn’t a big deal for me,” she said.

    It didn’t take long for physical improvements to show, primarily a renewed source of energy.

    “Each day got so much better,” she said. “Three weeks later I was on the phone talking with my Grandpa and he said to slow down.”

    April is Donate Life month, and Altman celebrated by finally returning home. She still visits St. Louis each month for antibodies treatment. She said the chances of her body rejecting the new lungs were increased during the first six months.

    Otherwise, Altman was told to do anything she would in her normal life. After years with bad lungs, this was a both a physical and mental challenge.

    “The hardest thing was telling myself, ‘you can breathe’,” she said. “I still come home at night and think that I have to do certain things, then I realize I can just go to sleep.”

    Altman’s family also had difficulty adapting to her new physical status.

    “My family still thinks I need help, but I’m aware that I don’t, but they’re learning,” she said.

    Altman now has a renewed sense of enjoyment for the little things in life that most people take for granted.

    “I enjoy sleeping on my back, the calmness of the waters,” she said. “It was hard for me to enjoy these things since I was always coughing.”

    Among other activities, Altman played tennis for the first time in a decade. She hopes to walk or possibly even jog during the Great Strides event, even looking ahead to participating in next year’s Derby Festival Mini-Marathon.

    “I’ll have to check with my trainer,” she said. “That’s my husband, Travis.”

    Because of her physical condition in the past Altman was never able to participate in such events. By next year she hopes to become more involved with planning the walk and the adjoining dinner.”

    Altman also hopes to increase her volunteer efforts with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, using her personal experience to educate and prepare other patients.

    “I would like to go out and give talks about it,” she said. “I want to turn my blog into a book, something helpful to cystic fibrosis families.”

    Altman thanked family and friends for continuous prayers and support throughout her transplant process. She admitted feeling a responsibility to maintain her fitness, not only for herself but for God and to the donor’s family.

    “I feel that since God gave me a second chance, I must live and enjoy each day to the fullest,” she said. “I try to explain to others what a miraculous thing this is that has happened to me, but it’s very difficult. I don’t think that people can understand it unless they have experienced it.”

    The Great Strides Walk at Slugger Field takes place Saturday, May 15, beginning at 9 a.m. For more information about the walk go to www.cff.org/great_strides/.

    For more in formation on cystic fibrosis, or to make a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, visit the organization’s main site, www.cff.org.

    To learn more about Altman’s personal story, visit her Web page, www.caringbridge.org/visit/christaaltman.