The best gift for Chepachet woman: First deep breaths in a decade

The best gift for Chepachet woman: First deep breaths in a decade

Annie Walsh, center, thanks her community and her family for the tremendous support she received before and after her double lung transplant. Annie is with her family while waiting for surgery. At far left and right are brothers Ethan and Jake, as well as her mother, Sue, and father, Mark.

GLOCESTER – The phone call 15 years in the making came to Annie Walsh over dinner at Jessica Tuesday’s in Putnam, Conn., on Oct. 2 when she was informed that a pair of lungs were available for her double lung transplant.

Her mother, Sue Walsh, watched in disbelief as Annie burst into tears of joy and began answering questions. The restaurant staff ushered the family out the door as quickly as possible, knowing Annie had only two hours to get to Boston to start preparing for her transplant.

The call was the answer to years of prayers from Annie, her family, members of the local community, and people across the country and around the world that she would get a chance to live a longer life to her fullest.

This Christmas, Annie and her family are grateful for the donor and the donor’s family, Sue said, whoever they may be.

“We want to make sure everyone in the community and family and friends know how much their support helps uplift us and how much we appreciate it,” she said.

Annie and her two brothers, Ethan and Jake, are triplets. She said the support from them and her parents, Sue and Mark Walsh, was essential through her disease and recovery.

That support got Annie through some of her toughest times, she said, times when she struggled gaining and maintaining weight due to the massive amount of calories it took to fight to breathe each day.

Other times, it was support through fundraisers to help pay for medical costs not covered by her insurance.

Now, two months home from surgery and slowly regaining strength, she is thanking all those who helped her get to this point.

“It was truly amazing and helped me fight all these years, just knowing people are willing to come together and support me for all these years,” she said. “I can’t put into words what that truly means.”

In 2004, Annie was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, a lung disease that left her with 20 percent lung function at 11 years old. As her condition worsened, so was her ability to function. By 2011, she was using an oxygen machine at night, then eventually all the time. A double-lung transplant is the only thing that would give her a quality of life equal to her peers.

At 26 years old, Annie went into surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for her transplant. At that point, she had about 17 percent lung function remaining.

“It happened really quick. We got to Brigham and Women’s at 10 p.m. They brought me into the (operating room) at 2 p.m. the next afternoon. Then I had my surgery at 4 p.m.,” she said. Three weeks later, on Nov. 2, Annie walked into her house in Chepachet and took her first deep breath in more than a decade.

“Oh my gosh. It’s crazy the turnaround from going into surgery and now. I can’t believe how great I feel and how easy it is to breathe,” she said.

It had been 15 years since first going on a transplant list at Boston Children’s Hospital, and less than a year since she was added to Brigham’s transplant list. In that time, Annie was able to grow accustomed to the idea of a double lung transplant.

When she was 11, she said she was in complete denial that she would need new lungs. She said at the time, she just wanted to live a normal 11-year-old life and stop traveling to Boston all the time.

As she got older, she understood what a lung transplant would mean to her and her quality of life. As she came to terms with her need, it became easier to talk about and confront.

“There’s a donor and a donor family. When you’re thinking about them, your life and how it’s all connected and just how grateful that someone is willing to be a donor and allow me a second chance at life,” Annie said.

Annie said the lung transplant has given her a chance to live her life, and she feels liberated. For years, she answered every call, not knowing if a random number would be “the call.” Travel was difficult with her oxygen tanks and stressful knowing that at any moment she might need to be in Boston within two hours.

She said she was never able to realize what she fully enjoyed because she wasn’t physically able to do many things.

“I’ve always had to restrain myself or limit myself to what I could do,” she said.

With her new lungs, she said, “it’s crazy to have all the possibilities,” and she is looking forward to hiking and traveling. “I’m willing to give everything a shot,” she said.

Annie has a year of recovery to go and said in the next few months she will be able to go out and be social. She begins pulmonary rehabilitation in January to increase her lung function, gain some weight, and “all that good stuff.”

Annie, who graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a double major in elementary education and psychology, said she intends to go to graduate school and continue teaching.

A former preschool teacher at the Little Village Schoolhouse in Smithfield, she said she loves teaching and hopes to go back to it when fully healthy. For now, she is building up her immune system, including the 20 daily pills that she will take for the rest of her life.

Annie said she will keep pushing herself just as she’s always done. She said going to school and working kept her confidence up and kept her saying, “I’m still breathing.”

She said she is proud of her accomplishments pre-transplant and will make the best of the new life she has.

“Everything is a possibility now,” she said.

Sue Walsh caught the moment her daughter, Annie Walsh, found out that she was getting a double lung transplant on October 2.