Camille, After the Storm

Winter has come early to Michigan. Camille looks through the window and watches the snow fall, tries to think about Christmas, but the feeling in her stomach is not comfort and joy. For her, winter has always been a dangerous time. She is stronger now, but her body remembers the risk, still feels the dread.

Her body remembers many things that are no longer true. Starving for air. Being stuck in a hospital room on beautiful summer mornings. Stuck in a chair, watching her friends run and dance.

The problem had been her lungs, which shrank and withered even as her young body grew. Her heart was working itself to death, trying to compensate. Camille pushed on with a smile, but there was no healing for this, no way for her body to continue, and this is the dread she remembers.

But then the miracle they had prayed for, a new heart and lungs. For twenty months now, Camille has been exploring a world she had watched from outside. She can safely touch a flower, touch the earth, lay in the grass, listening to bird songs she used to play on her phone. It is a miracle and it is good, but it is not simple.

A few weeks after the transplant, she stood at the bottom of a hill she had been watching for months through the car window. She would climb it someday, she had told her parents, and today was the day. They started up the hill together but, after a few hundred feet, Camille fell behind. Her parents stopped and asked if she was OK. She looked at them, amazed. “How do you stand it?” she exclaimed. The heat and the sweat and the aching muscles were new to her – and frightening. She had never been strong enough to use her body this way, to make it tired.

Camille being Camille, she eventually made it up that hill, and many other hills, until sweat and aching muscles became the new normal. Eighteen months after her transplant, Camille was in England, competing as a cyclist in the World Transplant Games.

Camille is an overcomer, but that’s not so simple either. She more often speaks of “we” than “I”, and that means her parents Nancy and Eric. Throughout her life, they have researched her condition and traveled to specialists and laughed and wept and suffered alongside. The three of them have, together, clung fiercely to her life and, even more than most families, their lives are intertwined.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much better Camille’s body works since the transplant. She is no longer “the grey girl”, whose very skin announced her fragility. She can run and dance. Having lungs that work helps with other things, too, like memory and even vision. But, still, her mind cannot forget, cannot quite let go of the defenses she developed to survive.

Even church was a dangerous place. The coughs and colds in a typical Sunday crowd were a minefield for someone with Camille’s limited immunity. Kids her age didn’t understand the battle she was fighting and sometimes made it worse by teasing or leaving her out. Those wounds went deep and added to the question of why God would allow her to suffer so much, to be so different.

These are not easy questions and, even now, Camille does not have easy answers. She has made her body strong, but the instability of her past life is not easy to forget. She learned not to plan because her plans never survived, and – even now – she is wary.

There is one exception, one plan drove her even when it seemed she might not survive. Already a Registered Nurse, she is training to be a Physician’s Assistant and wants to work in Boston with one of the doctors who saved her life, helping people who are struggling down the same path she traveled.

As we talk about this, Camille laughs and describes herself as a medical nerd. She wanted her surgeon to keep her old heart and lungs so she could see them, and he did what he could. The heart was huge and weary. The shriveled lungs, once deflated, left little more than a tissue sample. Talking about this does not bother Camille. She was not her heart, not her lungs. They were not her life; only parts that enabled her life, and she is passionate about the need for organ donors. About 90% of people registered for heart transplants lose their life because so few hearts are donated.

This week, she flies again with Wings of Mercy, back to Boston to prepare for minor surgery – all the way to Boston because, after a heart and lung transplant, there is no such thing as minor surgery.

For Camille, that’s just the way it goes. Another hill to climb, another challenge to overcome, in a life that is miraculous and good, but rarely simple.

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