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By Kristen M. Daum
The chance to breathe has been a fight to survive for three Oklahomans. By a stroke of fate, these three young people sought life-saving operations this spring at St. Louis Children's Hospital. A double-lung transplant for each one — though an invasive and risky measure — seemed the last chance.
Haley Palmer, 12: Leaving ‘footprints'
Though born with cystic fibrosis, Haley Palmer was never significantly ill until last fall, when her body began shutting down.
Haley died June 13 at St. Louis Children's Hospital, where she was waiting for approval to receive a double-lung transplant.
When Haley wasn't dealing with the infections and other health problems stemming from her cystic fibrosis, she spent much of her time informing her community about the genetic disease. She raised more than $120,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation through her efforts.
"She didn't particularly want people to know that she had cystic fibrosis, but she knew that the only way to find a cure was to get out there and talk to people,” said Pati Richardson, Haley's home nurse of nine years. "Her motto was, ‘Footprints aren't made sitting down,' and she certainly has left footprints.”
After fall 2007, doctors found infections in Haley's brain and startlingly low oxygen levels in her lungs.
While doctors recommended the transplant, Haley's volatile health — stemming from the brain infections and a case of spinal meningitis — kept her name off the donor recipient list.
During the past nine months, her hometown of Owasso rallied behind the vibrant 12-year-old with billboards and car windows spreading the message: "Pray for Haley,” Richardson said.
At Haley's memorial service Thursday afternoon in Owasso, nearly 1,000 people gathered, all in shades of pink, to celebrate her bravery against cystic fibrosis and her commitment to finding a cure.
"She had a sparkle that lighted us all,” said family friend Kami Day. "Breathe easy, Haley. We love you and miss you.”
• HOW TO HELP:
- Contributions can be sent to: Haley Palmer Memorial Fund, RCB Bank: 11633 E 86th St. N, Owasso, OK 74055. (918) 274-1471.
- Haley Palmer Memorial Fund, RCB Bank: 12200 E 96th St. N, Owasso, OK 74055. (918) 274-1470.
- Cystic Fibrosis Foundation: 2642 E 21st St. Suite 100, Tulsa, OK 74114. (918) 744-6354.
Jordan Ulrich, 17: Beating the odds
Less than three months ago, doctors told Jordan Ulrich of Ada that she had only weeks to live. But after returning to stable condition, Jordan received a double-lung transplant May 10. For the first time in her life, Jordan now breathes with ease.
At 2 years old, Jordan was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. By April 2006, she was using such a small portion of her lungs that her doctors estimated she would die within two years without the surgery, her mother Lesa Ulrich said.
"She was on so much pain medication, it would've killed an adult,” Ulrich said. "Nobody ever thought she'd make it through a transplant.”
After her breathing ability plunged on April 4, Jordan's name skyrocketed to No. 1 on the donor recipient list. Then on May 10, the day before Mother's Day, she received a new pair of lungs from an unknown donor, Ulrich said.
Jordan was breathing without the help of a ventilator less than 24 hours after her transplant — a joyful shock for her family and the hospital staff, Ulrich said.
But in the following weeks, Jordan's body rejected the new lung tissue twice. To combat and overcome these issues, Jordan takes 60 medications each day.
Lung transplant patients have a 50 percent chance that they'll live past five years after the operation, said Dr. James Royall, the chief of Pediatric Pulmonology at OU Children's Physicians. But for Jordan and her family, the opportunity at life was worth the risk.
Jordan left the hospital less than a month after her surgery, but she'll be in St. Louis until August. After that, she must return every three months for checkups. "Jordan was not expected to do well at all,” Ulrich said. "There's something obviously beyond what medicine can do.”
• HOW TO HELP: The Ulrich family has a donation fund set up for Jordan at the ECU Credit Union in Ada. Contributions can be sent to: Jordan Ulrich Transplant Fund, ECU Credit Union, 801 E Main St., Ada, OK 74820. (580) 332-6306.
Bradley Davis, 19: ‘Waiting for our call'
Tuttle resident Bradley Davis was born three months premature and spent the first nine months of his life breathing through a ventilator.
Davis has never been able to go anywhere without an oxygen tank at his side, and he anxiously waits in St. Louis for a double-lung transplant, which could come within a few hours' notice.
Davis' condition isn't yet life-threatening, so his doctors want a top-quality organ donation before they perform the lung transplant, said Teresa Davis, his mother.
But until then, Bradley and Teresa Davis pass the time in their temporary St. Louis apartment, with intermittent thoughts of the forthcoming surgery wandering into mind.
"He just kind of takes it easy and is waiting for our call,” Teresa Davis said. "Every time the phone rings, we get all excited ... (but) you have your days when you get really anxious.”
For encouragement, Teresa Davis said she thinks of her son's surgery two years ago, when two steel rods were put in his back.
"They didn't think he would survive it, because his lungs were so weak, but he did,” Teresa Davis said.
• HOW TO HELP: Friends of Bradley Davis have set up a relief fund at Sooner State Bank in Tuttle. Contributions can be sent to: Bradley Davis Relief Fund, Sooner State Bank, 2 SE 4, Tuttle, OK 73089. (405) 381-2326.
For three Oklahomans, the chance at life brought them to a St. Louis hospital. A double-lung transplant seemed to be their only hope.
Video recorded by Kristen Daum. Edited with assistance from NewsOK video team.