Tara Bourque was lying in bed on a Sunday morning when she got the call.
It was July 22 and she was planning a brunch the next day for her 25th birthday. That’s a milestone for someone born with cystic fibrosis, not to mention a double-lung transplant recipient suffering from chronic rejection.
The voice on the other end was Colleen from The Trillium Gift of Life Network.
“We’ve got lungs for you.”
Five words she’d been waiting more than two years to hear — 807 days exactly.
“I was so excited, but also reserved,” said Bourque. She had received the same call last March, only to find out the lungs weren’t viable for transplant just moments before surgery.
“In my head I just thought — this is too good to be true, to get new lungs on my birthday.”
She knew the drill after receiving her first double lung transplant in 2012 — she showered and headed for Toronto General Hospital. Her parents, vacationing at the family cottage in New Brunswick, had to decide who would take the last available seat on the next flight to Toronto (mom, Nancy) while dad (Tom) waited till the following day.
While the ‘retrieval surgery’ was underway — to remove lungs from the deceased donor — Bourque’s transplant team officially OK’d her surgery for the next morning — her 25th birthday.
Her first transplant had taken eight hours. This one was complicated by existing scar tissue.
“The surgery was harder on them than it was on me,” she said with a laugh, pointing to the gruelling 14 hours the family endured in the waiting room. “I just had a good nap.”
Recovering from a second transplant is generally considered more difficult, but Bourque again defied the odds.
“My breathing tube was out on the first day… and soon I was going for walks just for fun.”
After 19 days in hospital, she was discharged and settled into the downtown Toronto condominium she’ll call home the next three months. Transplant patients must stay nearby during the vulnerable weeks following surgery.
She attends physiotherapy and clinic appointments and takes a slew of medications for everything from heart rate to nutrition. She’ll be on anti-rejection drugs the rest of her life.
She does experience pain in her chest, but it’s a good kind of pain, she said.
“It’s like my ribs and muscles are saying, ‘We’re not used to breathing this well,’” she said with a laugh. “Any discomfort I have is because my lungs are actually working so well.”
Flights of stairs, which overwhelmed her with anxiety and hopelessness, are now a breeze.
“It’s so surreal,” she added. “It’s like I am living in a dream state. I just want to go out and do everything.”
Over the years, Bourque has been candid in sharing her health struggles and triumphs publicly; she’s a tireless advocate for Cystic Fibrosis Canada and promotes organ donation every chance she gets. Her Facebook page, ‘Alive with Every Breath’ boasts more than 5,000 followers.
“I have people from England messaging me. I even had someone recognize me in the elevator of our condo building in Toronto the other day,” she said. “I think my message is getting across — I’m proof of how organ donation can change a life.”
Back home in Sarnia, family friends have launched a GoFundMe Page (www.gofundme.com/tara-bourque) to help cover costs for Bourque and her family to stay in Toronto.
Things like gas cards provided by the Sarnia Organ Donor Awareness Group are a big help.
“I love living in a small community,” she said. “Toronto is fun, but you’re not going to get that kind of support that comes from Sarnia.”