Breathing easy is not something Lockport's Pauletta Fry takes for granted. The breaths that most of us don't even notice we take, Fry greatly appreciates.
Thanks to an anonymous organ donor, Fry was able to get new lungs five years ago and can now take deep, clear breaths of air and can do all the things in life she had to give up before the surgery.
"I can do anything I want to do now," she said. "Anything. Breathing is no trouble."
April is National Donate Life Month, and Fry is on a mission to encourage others to register to be organ donors. It's easy, she said, and it can save lives -- as it did hers.
She took their word for it until she began having symptoms of neuropathy. The nerves in her feet and legs were "on edge" at the beginning, then later became painful.
An attentive gastroenterologist took note of the neuropathy, but also of her lung problems. The doctor ordered several tests, one of which was a simple blood test for a gene deficiency that affects the lungs.
Fry's alpha-1 antitrypsin gene deficiency test came back positive. It's an inherited condition she has had all her life, unknowingly given to her by her parents. Each of her parents were carriers but did not have the condition themselves. The disorder can cause lung disease in adults and liver disease in adults and children.
Fry was diagnosed about 13 years ago, when she was 50.
"I didn't know what to think about it," she said. "Even my pulmonologist hadn't heard of it."
Her doctors put her on oxygen, which she carried around with her wherever she went. Meanwhile, she underwent testing to determine whether she was healthy enough for a lung transplant. Doctors were looking at a double-lung transplant, which has a much better long-term outcome than a single-lung transplant.
Over the years, Fry's lungs just kept getting worse. While she was waiting on the transplant list, she got to the point where her physical activity was extremely limited.
"I got winded so easily that I couldn't do anything," she said. "I was still on oxygen, and I was on inhalers and lots of different kinds of medicines."
"They said, 'We have your lungs. We want you here at 10:30.' I got on the phone with my husband. He was working on the other side of town. I was hysterical, but we made it."
An organ donation had come through for Fry. It was a difficult surgery, she said, and a rough month of recovery in intensive care, but she pulled through.
Her husband George was her rock, she said, and she couldn't have done it without him.
It was several months of recovery at home, but Fry said it was all well worth it. Today, at 63, she has no trouble doing the hour-long exercises twice a week at her rehabilitation at Silver Cross Hospital, and she walks up to 12 miles a week. She loves walking with her dog, Hope, too.
That donor saved my life, she said, although she doesn't know that person's identity. She filled out the forms requesting contact with the donor's family, but has not received a response.
"I don't know what I would say," she said of the prospect of talking with the donor's family. "I would probably just stand there and cry. It was quite a gift."
Fry encourages everyone to register as organ donors.
"Just think about it," she said. "Your soul is already gone. You're in heaven. Do the best with what you leave behind. Donating your organs is a gift you leave behind for other people."
To register as an organ donor in Illinois, visit www.lifegoeson.com. Registering can also be done by calling 800-210-2106 or at the nearest secretary of state facility.