Bristol woman gets new lungs

BRISTOL — Bristol’s Kate Heffernan, a 26-year-old cystic fibrosis patient whose quest for new lungs has drawn widespread interest and financial support from people throughout Addison County and beyond, began breathing on her own on Thursday following an intricate organ transplant operation in Boston the previous day.
“It will be a long road to recovery, but everything that has happened so far has been positive and going as it should be,” a very tired and grateful Valerie Snelling, who is Kate’s mom, said during a phone conversation from Massachusetts General Hospital.
She and other family members have been riding an emotional rollercoaster that began traveling at breakneck speed on Tuesday, Oct. 27. That’s when Kate received the long-awaited call from hospital officials about a potential organ match and instructions to get to Mass General ASAP.
Kate and her dad, John “Peeker” Heffernan, quickly made their way to Boston. There, she was admitted to the hospital and told to sit tight while a variety of organs harvested from a donor — whose identity will forever remain unknown unless voluntarily divulged by the person’s family — were assessed for compatibility with potential recipients like Kate.
When the donated lungs were confirmed to be a good match for Kate, Mass General mobilized its world-class transplant team and the feisty Bristol native was asked to give the final go-ahead.
“Kate was quite anxious and nervous,” Snelling said, noting the risks involved and the enormity of the situation.
Family members also had trepidations, as the reality of the generous gift — and the operation that was to unfold — hit home in real time after months of planning and fundraising.
“You want the call, and when it comes, you think about all the things that can happen,” Kate’s father, Peeker Heffernan,said. “Are we ready for this.”
They were, and so was Kate.
She was whisked into the operating room at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 28, Kate’s mom said. The lead surgeon made the first incision at around 8:45 a.m. and completed the procedure at around 4 p.m.
“Kate stayed  stable throughout,” Snelling said. “Her vital signs were good. She remained on a ventilator throughout the night.”
A host of family members made the trek from Addison County to Boston to wait out the operation and provide mutual support. They provided periodic updates via Facebook as the first lung, then the second, were carefully placed into Kate’s body. A handful of family members — including Kate’s grandmother Diane Heffernan — devoured the updates as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean on return from a vacation.
Kate was taken off the ventilator Thursday afternoon, which finally opened the doors for family members to visit with her for the first time. Prior to that, family could only look at Kate through glass windows, which Valerie likened to a “fish bowl.” They were elated to see Kate move her toes and give a thumbs-up.
The delicate operation is over, now comes the hard part.
Kate and some family members will need to spend the next two or three months in the Boston area, making frequent visits to Mass General for check-ups, medicines and therapies designed to reduce the potential for her body to reject the new lungs. Snelling has been trying to pin down lodging as she visits with her daughter. A “Lungs for Kate” fund drive has netted more than $78,000 to help pay for accommodations, food and medicine that will not be covered by medical insurance.
Meanwhile, Kate and her family have a lengthy list of people to whom they feel grateful for helping their daughter get a new lease on life. At the top of that list are the donor and his/her family who have made an incalculable sacrifice so that someone else can have a future.
“This is something that we have obviously had to come to terms on,” Snelling said. “The gain for our daughter is someone else’s loss. We would like to express how grateful we are for their gift of life to our girl.”
The thank-you list also extends to employers, friends, colleagues and complete strangers who have given time, money and/or prayers for Kate’s cause.
Peeker Heffernan is partner in a small excavating business. He of course had to suspend work at job sites last week when Kate received the call.
“Everyone I work with was so understanding,” he said. “They said, ‘You’ve got to take care of your family first, and everything will settle itself out.’”
The family continues to receive offers of help and well-wishes.
“The community support has been overwhelming,” Heffernan said. “It is very humbling.”
Family members are confident Kate has the right attitude to face her newest challenge — forming a permanent bond with a new set of lungs that only a week ago were giving life to a different person who had selflessly agreed to become an organ donor.
“She is such a strong-willed person,” Heffernan said of his daughter.
Editor’s note: John Flowers is an uncle, by marriage, to Kate Heffernan.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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