By Stella Davis | Current-Argus Staff Writer
"It felt like my knees were knocked out from underneath me," Connie said, recalling that day. "My years of smoking had caught up with me."
Connie said she trusted her pulmonologist in Lubbock — Dr. Gary Smith had practiced medicine in Carlsbad and relocated to Lubbock.
She said Smith worked to get her on the transplant list in Texas, and his efforts were successful. She was put on the lung transplant list, underwent all the required testing and then waited for a match.
It would be almost two years to the day from Smith's frightening prognosis to the day Baylor Medical Center called to say they had lungs that might be a good match.
In the two years she had waited for healthy lungs, Connie and her husband, Billy Joe, made four rushed trips to Baylor after receiving a call about a possible match. But each time, they returned home without new lungs for Connie.
"We would get there only to find out that the lungs were no good. We always had bags packed and a medical air transport on notice during those two years," Billy Joe said. "Connie and I carried a beeper so that when we got the call, we would be ready to go. There is a very short window to get to the hospital after they call you. We were always on standby."
By the time they got the fifth call, Connie's health had deteriorated considerably. She was on oxygen, unable to get around, to take care of herself or to do what she loved — work on her family farm.
"If it had not been for my husband, I would not have made it," Connie said. "He did it all; he took care of me, worked his full-time job at Queen Oil, did all the housework and worked the farm. I was helpless and couldn't breathe. All I could do was lie on the couch or sit in a wheelchair. "
Billy Joe added: "We are a team. We compliment each other. I have Type 1 diabetes. I was diagnosed at age 17. That was in 1962, the year I graduated from Carlsbad High School. We take care of each other. If I was in the same situation, Connie would have done it all too."
On the day they received a call that the lungs were good and a match for Connie, the air ambulance was put on standby while an ambulance transported Connie to the Cavern City Airport.
When they arrived at Baylor, the medical transplant team was waiting. Connie was prepped and taken into surgery.
After hours in surgery, Connie was wheeled out and the wait began to see if she would make it through the night.
"The surgeon stayed with Connie and monitored her throughout the night. That, to me, was very impressive. I knew she was in good hands," Billy Joe said.
With her recovery going well, Connie was discharged from the hospital. But for the next three months, she was required to stay close to the hospital.
"They have an apartment complex there for patients who are required to stay in close contact with the hospital and undergo rehab. We were assigned an apartment. Back then, the cost was $30 a week fully furnished," Connie recalled. "Billy Joe would go home to work and take care of our place. Then he would return on the weekends."
After the successful transplant, Billy Joe said he began to see Connie return to her old enthusiastic self.
"While at Baylor, she wanted to walk everywhere, even taking the four flights of stairs in the parking garage," he said with a chuckle.
"I loved being able to walk and breathe the fresh air. I had been too long inside unable to walk or breathe without oxygen," Connie said. "It was wonderful to be able to do the things I hadn't been able to do for two years."
After she was deemed fit to return home, Connie resumed her daily routine and working on the farm. She helped bale hay and harvest the pecan orchard. She truly appreciated the gift of life.
At the encouragement of transplant officials, Connie wrote a letter to the mother of the 18-year-old boy whose lungs she received.
"The mother acknowledged that she received my letter, but indicated she wanted no further contact with me, which I didn't take personally," Connie said.
With her 10-year transplant anniversary on Feb. 7, Connie said she is thankful every day for the gift she has been given.
Billy Joe said he is extremely proud of his wife, who never complained at the hand she was dealt.
"She has always been a strong and independent woman. When Connie came home after the lung transplant she was enthusiastic and full of life, no task was too big," he said.
Recently, the couple received a scare when Connie fell ill. She was flown to Dallas where she was examined for possible rejection of the lungs, or a heart problem. Fortunately, neither was found. The cause of her illness was not determined.
Throughout the two years Connie waited for a new set of lungs, Billy Joe said having an understanding employer and good insurance enable him to be with Connie and be worry-free about the huge medical bills that piled up from the transplant surgery.
"I never missed a paycheck, even when I was not working," Billy Joe said. "Dorothy, Bill and Paul Queen, the owners of Queen Oil, were more than kind. They became good friends to us."
Today, Connie continues to go about her daily life. In addition, she networks with other organ transplant patients in Carlsbad. Occasionally, she receives a call from her doctor asking her to visit with someone who has just undergone a transplant and is not dealing well with it. Other times, she may be asked to talk to a patient considered for a transplant.
"It's all about attitude. You have to have a strong faith, a positive attitude and a lot of family support. That's what got me through it. If my lungs failed today, I would be thankful for the time I have had. Since the transplant, I got to see our daughter, Brook, married, and the birth of our two grandchildren. I have the privilege of seeing them growing up. I can't ask for more than that."