For most of us, the act of breathing is so simple that we never even think about it. But for Stephanie Briggs ’98, every single breath felt like a battle.
Stephanie Briggs, 34, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 12. Cystic fibrosis, or CF as it’s commonly known, is a genetic abnormality that causes thick mucus to form in the lungs and digestive tract. The disease can lead to respiratory complications and frequent infections, and the prognosis for CF patients is often grim: the average life expectancy is only 37.4.
However, some people can live a normal life for many years before they begin suffering from CF symptoms, and Briggs was one of the lucky ones. She was able to travel, enjoy camping, and even go running. Shortly after completing college, she got a job as an admissions counselor for the Saint Joseph’s online division, and married the love of her life, Brian Briggs. Although she tired easily and needed to take large quantities of medicine every day, she was coping well with the disease.
In an e-mail sent back to the college community from the hospital waiting room after the surgery, Stephanie’s boss, Lynne Robinson, wrote: “All in all, a miracle that’s been years in the making. We won’t forget Saint Patrick’s Day as the day someone we love got a new chance at life.” Robinson says everyone at the college rallied quickly to accommodate Stephanie’s need to work from home.
But in 2007, Briggs’ health took a turn for the worse. “I had gotten so many infections that I was having a harder time fighting them off,” she said. Now, her doctors warned her any illness could have the potential to end her life. “I was basically playing Russian roulette.”
Briggs couldn’t risk the chance of infection, so she began telecommuting to work, and rarely left her home except to go to her doctors’ offices. She’d spend an hour and a half each morning on medical treatments. Often, she wrote in her blog, “[I] stop halfway through treatment because I cough so hard that I puke up my coffee.” Each night, she’d have to repeat the grueling process again.
It was the most difficult time in Briggs’ life. “The years were just adding up, and I was living day by day, not knowing how long I had.”
The only possible solution – a double lung transplant – seemed equally scary. The invasive operation is risky, and about 10 percent of patients don’t survive the first year after their operation. There’s also a chance that the patient’s body could reject the new lungs. But if the operation was successful, it meant that Briggs would never struggle for her breath again.
Two years ago, she decided that she was ready to take that chance, and put her name on the transplant list.
Co-worker and friend David McCall says of Stephanie, “She’s funny … and she’s tough as nails. I have been amazed by her courage and inspired by her optimism. And the college’s response to her health challenges has made me proud to be part of this community.”
While she waited to receive that fateful call, Briggs’ friends and family began raising money to cover the transplant-related expenses that her health insurance wouldn’t pay for. The Saint Joseph’s community, says Briggs, was a huge help.
“In the spring, St. Joe’s held a fundraising luau for me,” she says. “They had the Calypso Cowboys play, with dancing, goodies, and an open bar.” The event raised more than $1,500, and additional fundraisers organized by her friends and family raised a grand total of $25,000.
Finally, on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day this year, Briggs received word that it was time for her transplant – that very evening in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Although the 9½- hour operation and its recovery were difficult, the support Briggs received from everyone in her life helped her pull through. “I had my boss, my husband, my mom and dad, my best friend, and my sister sitting in the waiting room all night,” she says.
When Briggs was feeling well enough to check her e-mail, she was overwhelmed by her inbox: “I had over 500 e-mails,” she says. “It took me two days and a whole box of tissues to get through them.”
Now that she has recovered from the surgery, she feels as though she’s been granted another shot at life. Even though she still has cystic fibrosis – the disease currently has no cure – she’s once again able to do everything she wants to do.
“I lie in bed and hold my breath because I can,” she says. “I love being able to talk, laugh, and sing. Even just being able to leave my house. I spent about five days at our family camp in Eustis, and I started jogging again yesterday. My legs hurt from jogging, but my lungs don’t.”
Briggs also wants to help other critically ill patients who don’t have the kind of support that she received. “I’m going to open a foundation called Hope Heals that will serve patients who are critically ill and have to spend time in the hospital,” she says. The organization will provide grants to help with travel expenses for the patients’ families, who often camp out in hospital waiting rooms for weeks at a time because they cannot afford to stay in hotels. She plans to hold fundraisers for the organization and apply for grants, but some of the funding will come from her own pocket “as a way of giving back,” she says.
Briggs is realistic about her disease and knows that her good health may not last forever. “I might get two great years out of it, or I might get 25 years out of it,” she says. But regardless of what happens, she will live her life to the fullest, taking deep breaths all the way.
by Kathryn Hawkins