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Gift of the breath of life

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MIRAH LANGER

“I can breathe, and it means I can get through anything. My outlook on life is different. Sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ll just have a flash of overwhelming amazement that I got through this, and that I’m capable of doing something that I simply couldn’t do before.

“I have control over my own life now. That gives me hope.”

Reflecting on the coronavirus pandemic, Isaacs feels acute empathy for those suffering. “I know what it’s like not to breathe, and I know what it’s like to have pneumonia. I don’t think people realise just how bad it is. The people in intensive care don’t want this for themselves, and they don’t want it for anyone else. When you can’t breathe, you can’t live. We need to be cognisant of this reality.”

She urges the public to remember that ultimately, this is a time of “stepping up to keep one another safe, and protecting all those around you”.

Isaacs has travelled a long road of recovery in the approximately two years and four months since her transplant in December 2017.

Before that, she describes herself as an “ordinary King David girl from Johannesburg” who was simply enjoying all the usual milestones of life.

“In 2015, I was a healthy 29-year-old, just married with my future planned. Just one year later, things took a turn for the worse.”

Her life was disrupted when what started out as blisters in her mouth resulted in her being admitted to hospital struggling to breathe.

“The next day, my neck collapsed and my diaphragm. I landed up in the ICU [intensive-care unit] on a ventilator.”

Eventually, Isaacs was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Myasthenia Gravis.

She received the correct treatment, and “everything became 100% perfect again”.

In mid-2016, during a routine scan, a tumour was found in Talia’s abdomen. It was isolated and, when removed, found to be benign.

However, in September that year, Isaacs began to struggle to breathe again.

“We didn’t know what was going on because it was different – this was a constant struggle. I would walk a kilometre, and it would get hard, or I would walk up a steep hill, and I would struggle. It progressively got worse.”

Yet, scans couldn’t pick up any specific problem.

“Eventually, it deteriorated to the extent that my lung function reached 14%. Normal lung function should be 80% and up.”

By then, Isaacs was on mobile oxygen, and also had to have oxygen to sleep at night.

“That was quite traumatic – having to lug about an oxygen tank. However, you get over it. You have to get out of the house – you can’t sit at home!”

Eventually, doctors diagnosed Isaacs as having a syndrome called BOOP.

“The only way to solve it is to have a transplant. It’s degenerative. Your lungs get worse and worse, so eventually you need one no matter what.”

By September 2017, Isaacs was re-admitted to hospital. She now weighed in the low forties, and had to work with a biokineticist daily to try and build up sufficient muscle and body mass to be suitable for a transplant.

For the next few months, Isaacs said she lived “day by day” as she waited for a possible donor.

“I was trying not to pity myself because then you get into these conversations of ‘poor me’, and that isn’t going to help the situation; it’s only going to help to be positive. My family were incredible. They didn’t leave my side,” she remembers.

“I cried to my mom probably every afternoon. She gave me a little pep talk, and I got over it. She always believed that I was going to be okay, and if people believe in you, you can also believe in yourself.”

She was also inspired by the support of the community. “I was on every single davening list in the world. It helps to keep you motivated.”

Isaacs says she hadn’t really accepted that a transplant was necessary until about two weeks before it occurred, at which point she acknowledged how serious her deterioration was.

“Then, in my head, I was like, ‘This is it. I need that transplant. I need those lungs.’

“And then, two weeks later, I got them, so I do believe there’s a bigger power looking after us. I definitely believe in G-d, and this was truly a miracle.”

Yet, Isaacs also pays tribute to the medical staff that implemented the miracle. “Your doctor, nurses, and transplant team becomes an extension of your family.

“I was in ICU for six months; the nurses looked after me like I was their own child.” For her, the doctors’ expertise and the humility with which they approached their work was awe-inspiring.

“How can you thank these people enough?” she asks.

Doctors told her family that at the time of the operation that her lungs were the size of ice cream scoops, and black in colour. With the transplant, “I could breathe pretty much straight away.”

The first night out of hospital was all about the sheer luxury of the ordinary pleasures of home: “The first shower; sleeping in your own bed.”

She gives the poignant example of being reunited with her husband. “In hospital, I used to sleep in this little bed and wake up and feel for my husband who wasn’t there. Now, I can reach out to him any time. I just check that he’s still there.”

A key life goal is to promote organ donation.

She says there are many misconceptions about how the body of a donor will be treated in the event of using their organs. Everything is done with dignity, she affirms.

Furthermore, if a person is willing to be an organ donor – whether they are registered on a donor site or not – the decision always rests with the family.

“They respect the family more than anything.”

As such, anyone who is willing to be a donor needs to tell their family their wishes.

Isaacs says that while Jewish people can donate organs, there are restrictions involved in doing so, and she urges people to consult their rabbis.

Recipients of organs are asked to write a letter to the family of the donor, but beyond that, the gift of life is anonymous for various psychological reasons.

Yet, for Isaacs, the donor remains first and foremost on her mind.

“That’s my hero for the rest of my life,” she says.

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