A gift of life

Corey Gradin in July, after her lung transplant

Corey Gradin in July, after her lung transplant

Corey Gradin has new lungs — and with them, a chance for a future.

She received her lungs in late May in an operation that took place at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Who they belonged to, and how the family members decided to donate his or her organs to a dying 16-and-a-half year old, remains unknown, the private decision of a family in grief.

For Corey, that sacrifice has made the difference between life and death.

I first wrote about Corey in the December 2010 issue of the Rockland Jewish Reporter. At that time, Corey was 14 and just beginning the “pre-hab,” as she calls it, for a transplant. Corey is the child of Harlan and Elise, a couple with whom my husband and I shared many Shabbat dinners and yontif meals when we all lived in Durham, N.C. Their daughter, Corey, was born with cystic fibrosis, a disease that robs the lungs of normal function, filling them with thick, strangling mucus.

Corey was also born long after I’d left North Carolina, so I have never met her in person. I knew that she was born with CF, and that over the years it had sapped her strength and was threatening her life. When I first contacted her, her lung capacity had dropped dramatically from 70 percent to 30 percent in a very short period of time.

Because medications had damaged her hearing, we conducted our interview at the time through email, and we have continued to be in touch off and on through that medium and through Facebook.

Corey is sharp and funny. She has a deep sense of irony and a blunt way of putting things. We both love costumes and disguises, so each year, I’ve sent her photos of my Purim getups and have passed along tips where the best cheap wigs are available (eBay).

Over that time I have followed her progress, waiting for her to be, as she puts it, the “perverse combination of sick and yet strong enough for a transplant.”

Six months ago, she and parents moved to St. Louis to wait for a matching set of lungs to become available, which is a polite way to say they were waiting for someone else to die. I don’t mean to sound harsh or judgmental; if it were my child, I’d be praying for the exact same thing to happen, too. When the right lungs became available, Corey was already in the hospital. Her “transplant nurse/coordinator/guru-woman” came in and said, “good night for a transplant.’” Everything after that happened very quickly. The idea is to get the newly harvested organs into the recipient as quickly as possible, since organs last only so long without a working body.

A transplant entails one of the greatest acts of generosity there is. I cannot imagine what it must be like to learn that you have lost a loved one, and in that moment of extreme grief and devastation, make the selfless decision to give someone else a chance to live.

For Corey, someone taking this step has meant a second chance — literally.

“To explain the drastic change in my health, I need to give some context: I was dying,” writes Corey. These are not words you ever want to read from a  girl barely on the edge of adulthood.

“My lungs were deteriorating rapidly, draining any energy I managed to generate. I couldn’t breathe on my own or move much at all. Even getting dressed or getting up in the morning took significant effort. To go out and try to do something, even minor, like a walk around a grocery store, was exhausting.

“The difference now is huge.”

I’ve seen photos of Corey on Facebook since her operation, out in St. Louis with her parents. Her progress since the transplant has been rapid and wonderful, although she writes that her body has a way of reminding her when she has overdone it by rewarding her with profound exhaustion.

Corey will always have to take medications to maintain her new lungs, and to make sure that her body does not reject them. Her life will always be extraordinarily different than ours. She is very cognizant of that, and she is also a teenager, aware that the “half” in her age matters, that milestones her friends take for granted — taking driver’s education and getting her license, for example — have passed her by because of her illness.

At the same time, she looks toward making up time and reaching those milestones. She anticipates learning to drive a car and she is in her own words “doing spectacular.” She  swims, does yoga and exercises as part of her physical therapy. She  goes out, makes plans and meets people. She has not shown any sign of rejecting the lungs.

Jewish organ donation rates are low. When I first wrote about Corey’s illness two years ago, I wanted to draw attention to this. Only 10 percent of Israelis hold an organ donation card, compared with a 40 percent registration rate in other Western countries. The Halachic Organ Donation Society, which encourages Jews to register, extrapolates the rate of participation among Israelis to mean that Jewish rates are low worldwide. Even the most secular Jews become very worried about whether it is Jewishly permissible to donate.

Many Orthodox rabbinic sources say yes, and other streams of Judaism encourage organ donation as the ultimate act of pekuach nefesh, or saving a life. My own feeling is that if you would be willing to accept an organ to maintain your own life or that of a loved one’s, you need to be willing to donate should that circumstance unhappily arise. It is simple to get a HODS card stating you are a donor, or to sign your driver’s license.

I asked Corey if she would want to meet her donor and she wasn’t sure. “No one chose for this person to die and for me to be a local biological match,” she wrote. “But if they chose to donate parts of their loved one in a time of great grief, I would certainly love to express my gratitude.” I think if they could see the pictures of Corey since the transplant, or at Confluence State Park, where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet, with her parents, they would know.

At Rosh Hashanah we say that we are inscribed in the book of life and at Yom Kippur, that book is sealed. While I may not believe in a literal ledger in some celestial holding tank keeping track of such things, I can’t help but think because someone wasn’t inscribed there, now Corey will be.


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