When Orange County physical therapist’s assistant and mother Ellen Dunn first started feeling run down and short of breath, she assumed it meant that she was out of shape. She soon began working out but noticed that things didn’t get any better.
That’s when her doctor diagnosed her with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable lung disease that results in scarring of the lungs and makes it hard to take in enough oxygen. “I knew my only option was a lung transplant, but I was in denial,” said Dunn. “It was a lot to take in and very scary – not just for me, but also for my husband and children.”
As her health rapidly deteriorated and she had to stop working, Dunn underwent six months of testing. She was finally listed for a double lung transplant on Mother’s Day weekend in 2008. “I was hoping it was a good sign that I got listed on Mother’s Day,” she said. “I hoped it meant I would get my new lungs and be able to watch my kids grow up.”
Dunn waited six long months for her double lung transplant. During that period she was called to the hospital three times for potential matches that ultimately didn’t work out. “After the third one didn’t work out, I told my husband I wasn’t sure I had the strength to go on,” she said. “At that point, I weighed 93 pounds. I could barely speak because of oxygen deprivation and I was so weak that I couldn’t chew or swallow. It was awful.”
Dunn was so sick that she had to miss her daughter’s high school graduation.
A match was finally found on November 3, 2008, and Dunn received her new lungs at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. “Finding that match was incredible,” she said. “My family and I were so relieved that it finally happened.”
Because she was so weak at the time of the transplant, Dunn spent six weeks recovering in the hospital. During that time she relied on her friends and family for support and they helped keep her spirits up even when she didn't feel her best. But now, 10 years later, she proudly calls herself strong and healthy. “After what I’ve been through, I think I’m more resilient than I ever expected,” she said. “I do everything I can to take care of myself and stay healthy.”
Since her transplant, Dunn has been an active advocate for organ donation. She regularly tells her story at hospitals and transplant centers and volunteers with LiveOnNY, a federally designated nonprofit that facilitates organ donation and raises awareness. In New York alone, there are nearly 10,000 people currently waiting for a lifesaving transplant and not nearly enough donors. “People die every day waiting for a transplant,” she said. “I was lucky and I hope my story inspires people to register as organ donors.”
In September, Dunn’s family threw her a surprise 60th birthday. They celebrated a milestone that she once feared she’d never reach. “Every day of my life is a gift,” she said. “I’m thankful that I get to be active and healthy. I am so grateful to the organ donor who saved my life.”
To learn more about organ donation or to register as a lifesaving donor, please visit LiveOnNY.org.
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