By LINDA BLASER | Pioneer Press - Lake Forester
"I had my hands tied down and more tubes coming out of me than I thought possible. I looked around the room and thought, 'Obviously I survived, because this isn't heaven. This would be torture,'" the Lake Forester said with a laugh.
This June will mark Annibali's eighth year with her new lungs. It is a story she agreed to share in anticipation of National Organ Donor Awareness Month in April.
Although she has resigned herself to the fact she will never know whose lungs helped her survive to see her daughter Ellie grow up, Annibali is okay with that.
"I'm a private person myself," she said.
She has the same outlook on organ donation.
"Obviously, I'm very much for it. But I'm also very respectful if someone isn't. It's your body and your choice," she said.
While she'd never ask friends or family if they've signed up as organ donors, Annibali is grateful someone donated a healthy set of lungs to save her.
Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 2, the disease had little effect on Annibali growing up. She describes herself as an athlete who "played everything I could get my hands on," rode horses and competed in field hockey through high school at North Shore Country Day School.
It wasn't until she graduated from college and started the daily grind sitting behind a desk as a mortgage banker that her disease began to rear its ugly head.
"The first time I was hospitalized for CF, I was 31," she said. "As I got older and my body got a little weaker and I changed, it took over."
Frequent lung infections reduced her breathing capacity by half, yet Annibali couldn't conceive of a transplant when the idea was first broached.
"My reaction was, 'Not for me,'" she recalled thinking.
Then things got worse.
"My lung function just tanked," she said.
For the first time in her life, Annibali realized the lungs she was born with were not the ones she would keep her whole life. Her lung functioning became so bad, doctors put her on oxygen 24 hours a day on June 3, 2002, a date she has committed to memory.
"Being told I need a transplant, I'd already sort of accepted in my mind. But being told I had to wear oxygen 24 hours a day -- you just couldn't hide that oxygen tube," she said.
When her lung capacity dipped below 30 percent, Annibali was put on the transplant list. That was in August 2002. She was 33.
Ten months later, at 5:17 a.m. on June 10, 2003, Annibali got the phone call: "We have lungs for you."
On a big adrenaline rush, she was down at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood by 7:30 a.m. Then the waiting game began.
Tests began to ensure there was no fever or infection that would prevent her from surviving the surgery. At 3:30 p.m., the organs were harvested and the lungs "looked like a good pair. Off to the operating room I went," she said.
The next morning after she awoke and the intubation tube was removed, Annibali breathed on her own for the first time in more than a year.
"It was very nice breathing," she said. "The nurse stuck an oxygen mask on my face and I was fine. It was quite amazing."
Today, Annibali takes 22 pills a day, including three anti-rejection medications, which she will have to take for the rest of her life.
"It's not that I'm normal or cured. I'm just dealing with the better of two evils," she said.
Annibali continues to stay active, playing squash and tennis to exercise her lungs, and is "an absolute rule follower" when it comes to her daily medications and regular doctor visits.
She's not sure why she has survived more than seven years when others haven't. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, between 120-150 lung transplants are performed each year in the United States for patients with cystic fibrosis; a dozen or so will die within a year. Annibali thinks her strict adherence to doctor's orders and luck might have something to do with it. But until conditions like hers can be cured, Annibali hopes others will at least consider organ donation.
"I think it's a great thing," she said. "When it saves people's lives, it's worth it."