Praying for a miracle
By Chanel Kinniburgh
Published in the Herald Sun, Sunday 30 April 2017
STRIKING it third time lucky is a matter of life or death for Natasha Tripp.
The 23-year-old is on borrowed time as she waits to, hopefully, become the first Australian to receive three double-lung transplants in less than five years.
The young fighter has already endured more than her fair share of pain and tragedy. But her will to go on inspires those around her.
“I want the lungs so that I don’t get to the end of my life feeling like I didn’t accomplish what I wanted,” she said.
“There’s always fear there, a fear of not only dying, but failing to do the things you want to do in life.
“I’m hoping for a third time lucky.”
Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth, she had a fight on her hands from day one.
Poor immunity made her body a breeding ground for germs and after a number of severe chest infections, her lungs were functioning at less than 20 per cent by the time she reached her late teens.
And when she was 14 the family was hit by the death of her mother Jane from cancer.
“Mum was my best friend,” she said. “Transplants are hard but losing her was the hardest part of my life and that’s why I know I can keep going now.
“Having that happen so early on and not having Mum there, we all learnt to deal with a lot of things in life and grew up quicker than we probably had to.”
Ms Tripp had her first lifesaving double-lung transplant in January 2014 and then another last year.
Before her second transplant she spent a month on her deathbed, admitting her fears to her dad just one night before a donor was found.
“Inside myself I knew that I was dying, I turned to Dad and said I didn’t think I’d make it,” she said.
“I was at the point where I had very limited time left.”
After suffering incurable chronic rejection both times, she is now preparing for a very rare third set, again relying on a stranger to give her the gift of life.
While the average life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis is about 37 years, Ms Tripp is determined to beat the odds, saying she won’t give up her will to live until she makes her dreams a reality.
“Every time you go for a transplant they ask what your goals are and, like last time, my short-term goal is to get to Europe.
“Getting married is also one of my biggest dreams. From a young age I wanted to be a mum, but after a few transplants I have to look after me first so kids are out the question at the moment.
“I don’t want to pass over and have regret, or be bitter and angry.”
Cystic fibrosis coupled with chronic rejection means both her respiratory and digestive systems are relentlessly under attack, causing her constant chest pain, fatigue, congestion and shortness of breath.
Showering, getting dressed or even waking up are daily marathons.
Despite juggling year-round trips from her hometown of Bendigo to Melbourne for medical appointments, Ms Tripp is studying fulltime to be an exercise physiologist.
She hopes to one day help others get their lives back on track following treatment.
Facing the possibility of death a number of times, Ms Tripp refused to back down, believing her positive mind could trump the failings of her physical body.
“When a doctor tells you you’re going to die you feel so deflated,” she said.
“But if I let those words consume me I definitely wasn’t going to live and get to where I wanted to go, and that wasn’t an option. It’s always eyes straight ahead.”
Prior to her previous transplants, she declined to fill out a will or discuss her wishes because it meant she was accepting defeat.
However, trying for a third transplant wasn’t a decision made lightheartedly.
“My sister and I made a pinky promise in ICU after my second transplant that we weren’t going to do a third,” she said fighting tears.
“I basically just didn’t want to do it again because it was too hard and she didn’t want to see me have to start over.
“But my family will support me no matter what; none of us are quite sure if I can do it again.”
Standing at 163cm and only 42kg, Ms Tripp is the first to admit her fragile body may not be strong enough to withstand another transplant.
But it’s not just her best shot at leading the successful life she desires, it’s her only shot.
Professor Greg Snell, who heads The Alfred hospital’s lung transplantation team, said even after 27 years in the job he couldn’t understand why Ms Tripp had been handed such “unfair” fate.
However, he is confident his world-class team can again give her a fighting chance at beating the conditions that encumbered her previous attempts at a healthy life.
“A second transplant is probably only on the cards for about 5 per cent of the total and a third has only occurred about three times in the 1300 procedures we’ve done,” he said. “To need three in less than five years has never been seen or done before.
“Frustratingly we’re still not able to completely knock out the immune system, and organ Transplants fail when you get scar tissue in the form of chronic rejection.
“It’s happened to Tash a couple of times, once badly due to a virus which set her immune system aflame and attacked her lungs.
“If you have a lung transplant, there’s no plan B, you need that organ to work, so the challenge of getting as much value out of the transplant is quite a delicate balance.”
After a suitable match is found, a transplant like Ms Tripp’s takes seven to 10 hours to complete.
Following the surgery, her fight to survive starts with about a week in intensive care before being moved to the transplantation ward for another fortnight. Once she is strong enough, three months of gruelling rehabilitation begins with learning to breathe again.
“In some ways Tash knows what she’s going to be asked to do so that gives her a sense of measured calm,” Prof Snell said.
“On the other hand, she can also see there’s an unknown; it’s a little bit like walking across a tight rope and not knowing which way you’re going to fall.”
At least Ms Tripp, the eldest of three children, knows she will have her dad, Philip, and younger siblings, Jasmine, 21, and Jack, 17, with her every step of the way.
From helping wash her hair to running for a bucket when she’s feeling nauseated, Ms Tripp said her relatives had been selfless and endlessly caring on her darkest days.
“A lot of people see it as a respiratory illness but it actually affects pretty much every organ in your entire body,” she said.
“Dad’s obviously been there by my side the whole way. We get frustrated together and we fight together.”
Philip Tripp said while his eldest daughter deserved better in life, she had shown nothing but compassion and bravery in the face of her illness.
“As a father, I would like to see Tash fulfil her goals in life without struggling to breathe,” he said.
“I am so proud of everything she has achieved in life.
“Despite facing pain and disappointments trying to live a normal life, her big heart and care for others is something to be admired.”
Thanks to 503 organ donors and their families, a record 1447 Australians were given a second chance at life in 2016, according to the organ and tissue authority.
Australia has the best lung donation rate in the world, however, Ms Tripp is calling on more people to register.
“Organs have saved my life twice already, I wouldn’t be here without them, and that is the most important message,” she said.
To join the Australian Organ Donor Register visit: donatelife.gov.au