ALTOONA — Graduating senior Tristen Brown doesn’t need anyone to give her these two well-intentioned bits of advice often directed at someone in her situation: Appreciate every moment, and don’t underestimate your ability to get through tough times.
Brown doesn’t merely understand those sentiments — she has lived them.
Brown, who received a double lung transplant Sept. 6, 2017, is receiving her diploma Friday at Altoona High School. She needed the procedure because she was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time.
Now describing her health as “excellent,” Brown was asked what she has learned — about life and about herself — from her health challenges, surgery and recovery.
About life in general: “Just be grateful for every day and live every day like it’s your last,” she said in an interview at the school. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true, especially in my circumstances, because tomorrow something could actually go wrong and then you just don’t know.”
About herself: “That I can overcome a lot of things that I didn’t know were possible.”
Brown is headed to Chippewa Valley Technical College and plans to earn her surgical technologist certificate. She’s starting classes on June 10 for prerequisites.
Needless to say, Brown has a head start on fulfilling the requirements of the profession. Those entail, she said, working in the operating room assisting surgeons with medical tools and instruments, such as handing them what they need. She also hopes to “maybe occasionally” assist in a surgery.
“I just wanted to do something in the medical field because … my mom’s a nurse and it’s very interesting to me,” she said. “And basically with all the medical stuff that’s happened to me, it’s easy for me.”
Besides the technical medical knowledge she’s gained, her life experiences would be an asset in her chosen field.
“If I did assist in surgery, I know what people will go through,” she said. “The fears of the operating room, (being) scared of being put under the anesthesia. Maybe I could relieve some of their stress because that’s what I’ve been through.”
Her mother, Sharon Varley, agrees Brown would be more than qualified for that line of work.
“With her whole life of doctors’ appointments and everything she’s been through ... she can show quite a bit of compassion to any of the patients she would be dealing with and knowing what they may be feeling and going through,” Varley said. “I think that’s a big plus she has on her side.”
Brown received her double lung transplant at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. She was one of 44 children in the United States, and just three in Wisconsin, to receive a lung transplant in 2017, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, the private organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system for the federal government.
Brown’s choice of a profession came, in part, from the relationships she formed with her medical team.
“I did look up to the nurses and doctors because you get really close with them,” she said. “So my transplant doctor, we’re really close. It’s not just like another doctor. Or my (cystic fibrosis) specialists; they’re really close because I’ve known them since birth.”
Thanks to the transplant, the lung difficulties have been taken care of, she said, but other “small problems,” in her words, persist. She gets stomachaches, she said, and she’ll be taking medications for the rest of her life.
During her conversation with a reporter, the petite young woman gave no indication she deals with any health struggles at all. Her mother certainly can see the difference in her daughter’s health now compared with before the surgery.
“It’s a 180-degree turn from what it was,” Varley said. “She had no energy and just struggled with the simple things we all take for granted. Just walking from her bedroom out to the living room was a struggle. Now it’s running around the house and going to the mall or shopping or any places with her friends is really good.”
Despite missing significant amounts of school time before and after the transplant — she had to take only online classes for two years — Brown has gotten back up to speed academically and socially. These days she spends her free time enjoying the company of friends doing things such as going shopping or “just hanging out in my house.” Before the surgery she had said she hoped to earn her driver’s license, and indeed she has passed that test too.
Brown and Varley have been in touch with the family of her donor, a 15-year old boy. The parents also have a son and daughter Brown estimates are about 19 and 20 years old, and a younger son is about 5 years old.
The family, whom Brown describes as “very nice,” is Hispanic, she said, and while a language barrier exists, they have shared letters, communicated through Facebook Messenger and hope to meet someday.
“They celebrate his life,” Brown said. “They are grateful that I got his lungs. The mom is very supportive. She comments on my picture, saying ‘beautiful.’ She’s very nice.”
Varley expressed a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of life given to Brown.
“The sheer selflessness of the donor and the family is always on my mind, knowing without them this couldn’t be possible,” she said.
In fact, Varley explained, the family’s generosity saved many lives. The boy’s heart went to 9-year-old-boy who is doing well, and also donated were his kidneys, corneas and tissue.
“Many people really benefited,” she said.
Brown also spoke of her own thankfulness.
“My mom … didn’t really think I would go to college or do all this because if I didn’t get a transplant we weren’t seeing myself this far in life,” she said. “So we’re really happy about it … just grateful.”
Spoken like someone ready to show how much she appreciates her gift by using it to help others.