When Janet Mahlberg ran into Lori Lawson a few years ago, it was more than just a surprise. It was a life changing experience.
“It had been over 22 years since I had seen her,” said Mahlberg, adding the last time she had seen her classmate, Lawson was pushing a 6-month-old baby in a stroller.
The conversation quickly turned to comments about how healthy Mahlberg, now 50, looked.
“She said she knew I was always sick, but never knew why,” said Mahlberg. “I told her that I had a double lung transplant at Stanford 4-1/2 years earlier. Her face went sheet white.”
Finally, in a faint whisper, Lawson told her that Sarah, the baby she had seen years earlier, was on the waiting list for a lung transplant.
“We need to talk,” Mahlberg reassured the anxious mother.
From that moment on Mahlberg became an important member of Sarah’s support team.
At age 3, Sarah Lawson was diagnosed with a condition called Idiopathic Pulmonary Hemo Sclerosis, which is a bleeding of the lungs. The scar tissue had caused permanent damage, which left Lawson on oxygen.
“I had good and bad times,” said the 2002 Colfax High School graduate. “I only used oxygen when I slept or did anything physical. But at 19, I took a turn for the worse and ended up in the hospital.”
Lawson was referred to Stanford where she was evaluated for a double lung transplant and put on the waiting list.
“The battery of tests are extensive prior to a transplant,” explained Mahlberg. “Stanford wants their patients to be emotionally and mentally stable enough to make the decision as well as have the drive and determination to survive the lengthy surgery and recovery.”
Just prior to her own operation, Mahlberg left Colfax and settled in North Highlands so she could be closer to Stanford while waiting for the lifesaving call. It was more than 18 months before a match could be found.
Mahlberg was 6 weeks old when her grandmother, Nadine Wren, noticed the infant’s breathing was irregular.
“She could tell by the rise and fall of my chest that something was not right,” she explained.
When her parents, Melba and Glen Wren, took their firstborn to the doctor, the doctor found a hole in her heart that caused high blood pressure eventually damaging her heart and destroying her lungs.
“By the time I had the transplant, my heart was five times its normal size and the hole was the size of a quarter,” she said. “I really struggled with having to take the required amount of drugs and dealing with side effects, but felt that I had a nudge from my guardian angel.”
Like Mahlberg, Lawson knew she was also on borrowed time.
“I was having a tough time deciding. I knew I was eventually going to have to have it done, but kept putting it off because I had a lot of stuff I was doing and had a busy life,” said Lawson. “Now that I look back, I wasn’t doing anything because I was really that sick.”
The pivotal moment for the Colfax resident came while on a trip with her family.
“We stopped at Donner Summit. I took off my oxygen and nearly passed out from lack of oxygen. I couldn’t breathe on my own.”
At that point, Lawson decided that living one year with a transplant would be an improvement over the quality of life she then had.
“You celebrate your transplant day as if it were a birthday because it is a new lease on life,” Mahlberg added. “God is gracious. That is the only reason I am alive today.”
Lawson, who recently went snow shoeing for the first time in her life, adds, “It really puts things into perspective about what’s important.”
3/12/08 – by Marci Seither, Colfax Record correspondent