Atascadero News photo Courtesy of Meara Schmidt · Meara Schmidt is on a last-ditch medical device which filters CO2 out of the blood. Here, hooked up to all the equipment during her four-month stay at the UCLA medical center, she goes for a stroll with her gear. • Creig P. Sherburne/Atascadero News · Srting scars from her trachea and ECMO treatments — you can't see the scar from the lung transplant — Meara and Jeffery Schmidt are just a couple of days away from celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. As little as six weeks ago, they didn't think it would happen.
Atascadero residents Meara and Jeffrey Schmidt will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary on Saturday July 28. They'll spend it fishing at Santa Margarita Lake.
This year's anniversary will be a very special one for the couple. Not only is Meara lucky to be alive at all, she's lucky that she's out of bed, able to walk on her own.
Meara has a genetic disease called cystic fi- brosis. It attacks the lungs causing thick, sticky mucus which traps infection-causing bacteria to build up. For Meara, it meant growing up with asthma-like conditions. But it also means she has to clear her lungs by coughing a lot more than other people.
She said that physical education classes, for instance, were all pretty tough.
"I've always had trouble, it's always been an ordeal," she said. "But I've always had encouraging parents."
But she always kept the disease under her hat, so to speak. She didn't want special treatment. "I always wanted people to know me, just me. I didn't want them to think of me as 'cystic fibrosis ,'" she said.
So she did what anybody would do: she lived life. She did things. She had friends. She met a guy and married him.
"I told [Jeffery] I had fibrosis from the very beginning," Meara said. "Being in the medical field , he knew what it was and he wanted to be with me. He is amazing and is the light of my life. I couldn't ask for anything more." Jeffery is a vet, working part time at an Atascadero office . He and Meara moved in with Jeffery's parents about a year ago, when he found a local job. Jeffery took the part time job in no small part because of Meara's illness.
"When I met her, she was pretty healthy," Jeffery said. "She was healthy for a few years."
But, he said, winter would come, and with it, the flu season . Every year, she would get hit harder and harder by it. Rather than just take some antibiotics when she got a case of pneumonia like most people, she had to be hospitalized. She was given aggressive lung treatments and intravenous antibiotics . And the hospital visits got longer and longer, and closer and closer together.
Things got really bad about two years ago.
"I had right-heart failure due to pulmonary hypertension ," Meara said. "I got super-swollen everywhere. [My heart] couldn't get oxygen through. I was swollen everywhere with edema. I had to be admitted to the hospital and that was the turning point. My lungs were just awful."
Her lungs couldn't absorb oxygen very well, so she had to cart oxygen tanks behind her everywhere she went. Jeffery said that going anywhere for any reason meant having four oxygen tanks in the trunk of the car. She was so tied to the oxygen, they called the 50-foot tube her leash.
"You might as well have stuck a stake in the ground and hooked her up to that," he said.
But she bounced back. She got off the oxygen and went back to what was normal for her. It would become a theme for her. Jeffery said she bounced back more times than he can count over the following year.
If pulmonary hypertension was the turning point, then the beginning of the end came in March.
A complication with cystic fibrosis , the carbon levels in Meara's blood got too high. Her body wasn't filtering it out properly. According to a press release issued by the UCLA medical center, at one point Meara's right lung stopped functioning , her left lung only partially worked and a machine that provided oxygen had to be dialed up to 100 percent.
Twice, when her tracheostomy and mechanical ventilation was insufficient to provide enough oxygen, she was put on a last ditch life-support system called extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation which took over her breathing function through a an implant surgically placed in her neck.
Meara's doctor, Professor Abbas Arbehali, the director of UCLA's heart and lung transplant program, said that she was a unique case.
"That's virtually unheard of, for someone to go on ECMO twice," Arbehali said.
ECMO, he said, is a lastditch effort. People generally either get better or die. That she was on twice is amazing.
On Wednesday, June 13, Meara's had been on ECMO again for a week.
"She was getting so bad, we were about to turn the machine off," Arbehali said. "It was futile ."
By that time, Jeffery said, he was simply waiting for the phone call that his wife had died.
"Every week or week and a half, I'd get a call in the middle of the night and something else had crashed," Jeffery said. "Or I'd go down and visit her and the doctors would say 'this isn't looking good, I don't know what to do.' And then she'd recover from it. " We'd gone through her dying so many times we just didn't know what to believe any more."
So it was decided. It was futile. Meara's lungs were not absorbing oxygen, she was in pain and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. The machines would be turned off either Saturday or Sunday.
Thursday morning, Jeffery got a call that would change everything.
"When I answered the phone, I was waiting for them to tell me she'd passed away over the night," Jeffery said. "Instead, they tell me she has lungs."
Ardehali said that at that point, they'd have taken any lungs for Meara. Instead, they got what amounted to perfect lungs. She went into surgery on Friday, July 15.
She was able to speak less than four hours after the operation . She walked on her own feet the next day. Her tracheostomy was out by Tuesday, and she was out of the intensive care unit and breathing on her own within a week.
"If she had not gotten the lungs, she would not have survived ," Ardehali said. "It was a very high-risk operation, but we decided to take a risk on a young woman. " She bounced back amazingly. It's remarkable how fast her recovery was."
Ardehali also said that she will be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life. Meara said that's inconsequential compared to everything else up to that point. "The big difference was my family and my husband," Meara said. "I wanted to be there with my husband. I want to have kids and live life."
She said she went fishing once, years ago. Now, her first big celebration after the surgery , she's going fishing.
And that's not all. Meara said she has every intention of picking up rock climbing and yoga. She named those specifi- cally, but also said she'd dip her toe into just about everything. To do anything other, she said, would be disrespectful to the person who died and donated the lungs now inside her chest.
"It's tragic that my donor had to pass away, but that one person, whoever it is, saved so many lives with a heart and a liver," Meara said. "It affects so many people's lives so deeply. So many people, not just me, not just my family."
To say Jeffery's grateful to have her is an understatement. His voice, when speaking about what can be called a "medical miracle" without hyperbole, gets rough. And no wonder.
"She fought a lot longer than I would have," he said. "And she shocked everybody. None of her doctors thought she was going to make it. It was always 'prepare for the worst.' There were hardly any positive notes."
The two said their plan for the future is simple. They're going to live.