TORONTO – A young woman whose inspirational advocacy for organ donation has garnered attention around the world gushed with gratitude Thursday at her first public appearance since receiving two lungs seven weeks ago.
At a news conference, Helene Campbell did a little happy dance to demonstrate her remarkable recovery from near death.
“I’ve named my lungs Gratitude – attitude with a little grrr,” Campbell said. “I’m just so grateful.”
In the space of six months, Campbell, 21, of Ottawa, went from skydiving and travelling abroad to someone who could barely walk.
She was diagnosed with a degenerative hardening of the lungs – ideopathic cystic fibrosis – a condition of unknown cause that was quickly suffocating her. On April 6, after just 10 weeks on the organ waiting list, she underwent a transplant.
On Thursday, a small scar on her throat and a husky voice were the only obvious signs of her dramatic journey.
“My voice is not fully back, it’s a little more raspy than usual, but I have a voice and I’m able to breathe and that for me is a miracle,” she said.
“I can take a shower standing up – that is the best thing I’ve been able to do in a long time.”
Campbell became the unofficial face of organ donation in Canada after attracting celebrity endorsements for her cause, including from Justin Bieber whose tweets set the campaign alight, and Ellen DeGeneres.
The response has been a significant increase in people signing up to be organ donors in places as far flung as Louisiana and Australia.
“It just took the right story to get through to people,” said Campbell, who vowed to keep up her advocacy for organ donation.
Waiting for the new lungs was incredibly difficult, Campbell said, noting many people die before a suitable organ can be found.
Campbell said she was curious as to whose lungs she received, but said it would be up to the donor’s family to decide if they wanted contact with her.
Her fervent wish, she said, was that they know the extent of her gratitude.
“My hope is that someone will somehow let them know how thankful I am – that through their loss I have life,” said Campbell, who takes 54 pills a day, partly to stave off rejection of the new organs.
“Everytime I take those meds, I think of that family.”
Campbell said her “darkest moment” came immediately after the operation, when her body began rejecting the new lungs and she developed an infection.
She blamed herself for “not doing enough” until her father encouraged her with words he used to say when she was a child: “A little Helene won’t give up.”
There has been no turning back.
“It’s not always been rainbows and butterflies,” she said.
“The support I received worldwide has been enough to keep me going.”
Campbell’s mother said the low point for her came the night before the transplant.
“She herself told us she didn’t know if she was going to make it through the night,” Manon Campbell said.
“(But) seeing her get up and getting everybody to do the dance (today) was my most joyful moment.”
As Campbell talked to reporters, her dad Alan Campbell said the televised news conference was like her “coming out party.”
“It was almost like a volcano of information, joy and enthusiasm that came out of her today,” he said.
Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, transplant director at the University Health Network, said Campbell’s transplant was among the most difficult of the 1,000 or so the hospital has done.
For one thing, Campbell was so ill, it was unclear whether she would survive the surgery. The donated lungs were too large, and had to be cut to fit in her chest, and she initially rejected the new organs.
Campbell recalled watching the monitor during a procedure in which a tube was inserted into the lungs.
“I was able to see the connective tissue, where the donor lungs and my lungs met,” she said.
“That moment for me was just life-changing. I got goosebumps.”
She said she hopes to go to school, and plans an appearance on DeGeneres’s TV show as soon as she is able to fly.