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Thankful to breathe: New lungs give new life to cystic fibrosis patient

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

BUFORD -- This Thanksgiving, Courtney Hickman can sum up what she's thankful for in one word: everything.

Courtney, 11, recently returned to her Buford home after spending seven months in St. Louis, where she received a double lung transplant on Aug. 5.

The sixth-grader has cystic fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. Courtney was placed on a transplant list when she was 8 years old, and before her surgery, her quality of life had greatly diminished. She was on oxygen constantly and couldn't walk more than 10 feet without getting tired.

Now that she's home, Courtney can enjoy the seemingly little things that people take for granted, such as going outside with her brother, Dax, 9, and riding bikes with him.

"I'm thankful to have new lungs," Courtney said. "I'm thankful that my brother still wants to play with me. I'm thankful that I can breathe. I'm thankful that..."

"You have a life," her mother, Holly Liliac, interjected. "Because without them (the new lungs), you wouldn't have."

Before her daughter's transplant, Holly said Courtney only ran three or four times in her life.

"To see her running everywhere -- and dancing and singing -- is huge," Holly said. "Before her transplant, she had gotten to where she was just not a happy person, because she was so sick. Now, to see her playful and happy, it's a whole new Courtney."

Courtney said she still has a hard time coughing. For the first time, she has full use of her lungs, and she's still learning how to use them. Her body is still adjusting to using her chest muscles instead of her stomach muscles when she breathes.

"I used to breathe like really tiny shallow breaths," Courtney said. "It's been a lot easier for me, although I have to take a lot more pills."

With her new lungs, Courtney has also noticed a difference in how much air she can take in. Before the transplant, Courtney said breathing was like taking in air through a straw. On bad days, it was like breathing through a coffee stirrer.

Now, she said, it's like breathing through "a really, really big pipe," like the ones you see strapped down to a tractor-trailer while driving down the highway.

Despite her newfound ability to run around, Courtney must still observe some limitations. She can't hang from anything. She can't play contact sports because she might get hit in the chest. (Her ribs, broken for the surgery, are still healing). She can't dig in the dirt, and she can't be around mold. She can't be around anyone who has a cold, like her baby sister, Sebella, because the immunosuppresants she's taking make her more susceptible to illness. Because it's flu season, Courtney hasn't returned to school, but she is completing schoolwork at home.

But, in her mother's eyes, those limitations are nothing compared to what would have been without the surgery.

"I'm thankful to still have her around," Holly said. "I'm thankful that she has a future. Her future was always so narrow, and now it's so wide open."