A C I F I C L U T H E R A N U N I V E R S
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Transplant volunteers show
true PLU bond
By Katherine Hedland '88
Adele Anderson ’03 (left) and
Mary Beth Leeper ’00 (not pictured) donated part of their
lungs to friend Nicole Cunningham ’00 (right).
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
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,”
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
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.”