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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]


Transplant volunteers show true PLU bond

Adele Anderson’03 (left) and Mary Beth Leeper '00 (not pictured) donated part of their lungs to friend Nicole Cunningham '00 (right)
Adele Anderson ’03 (left) and Mary Beth Leeper ’00 (not pictured) donated part of their lungs to friend Nicole Cunningham ’00 (right).

By Katherine Hedland '88

Last spring, Nicole Cunningham ’00 needed a machine to breathe for her. By this fall, she was entertaining three job offers and moving into her own apartment.

Cunningham owes her remarkable recovery to two fellow Lutes, her best friend and cousin. The pair donated parts of their own lungs to replace Cunningham’s, which were ravaged by cystic fibrosis.

“I thought it was going to be quite a lot longer before I started feeling so well,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s lifelong condi-tion worsened as she got older. Realizing that her disease was life threatening, and chances for a donor were slim, Cunningham sent a letter to family and friends saying she would pursue a lung transplant.

One volunteer was her cousin, Adele Anderson ’03. As she was getting her blood tested, Anderson said she was struck by a feeling that she was the right person to help.

“I felt that God’s hand was on my shoulder,” Anderson said.

Mary Beth Leeper ’00, Cunningham’s best friend since eighth grade and college roommate, also volunteered, but another cousin was thought to be a better match. When Cunningham developed a lung infection that nearly killed her in April, the transplant was moved up. Cunningham’s other cousin was ruled out as a donor, and Leeper flew to Los Angeles at the last minute for the surgery.

“It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Leeper said. “When I got that call from Nicole’s dad, I knew that’s where I needed to be.”

The transplant—which took a lobe from each of the donors to replace each of Cunningham’s lungs—was done at the hospital at UCLA. Recovery was difficult for Leeper and Anderson, who will always have about 5-10 percent less lung capacity, but both are getting stronger every day.

“The transplant itself is a miracle,” Leeper said.

Before, Cunningham required painful 20-minute treatments four times a day, was on oxygen at night, and had a feeding tube because she was usually too sick to eat. She was down to 80 pounds. Since the opera-tions, she’s put 20 pounds back on her 5-foot, 1-inch frame.

“I just take a handful of pills in the morning and a handful at night, and it’s so much less than I was do-ing before.”

Cunningham said PLU provided needed support during her illness. She did homework at the hospital and kept up as much as she could. When she was hospitalized weeks before graduation, faculty members eased her mind.

“My professors were so wonderful,” she said. “They just wanted me to not worry, but I was so stressed out about it.” Cunningham gradu-ated in May, and walked during August ceremonies.

She says there’s no way to properly Anderson and Leeper for what they’ve done. She has tried, in person and through letters.

“There’s no words to describe what they’ve given me,” she said. “We just have this special relationship.”

Seeing Cunningham’s newfound strength is all the thanks they need.

“She’s doing awesome,” Anderson said. “She was on her deathbed. Now you’d never know anything happened.”

Cunningham, who chose to take a job as a customer service represen-tative for the mental health department of the Pacificare office in Hillsboro, Ore., has become a re-source for other patients. She’s already talked to two women considering the same kind of transplants, and wants them to know how much it can change their lives.

“I cannot believe that breathing can be so easy,” she said. “I am so blessed by the whole experience.”

Pacific Lutheran University Scene
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