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Gifts of Life Give a Grandmother More Time

Alanna smiles while looking off-camera.
Two-Time Double Lung Recipient
North Dakota
“Mom, you can’t go yet, you’re going to be a grandma,” Alanna’s son told her as she lay on a hospital bed.

“It’s been a long journey,” says Alanna, driving through the sunny, open Dakota plains, revealing her story of her two double lung transplants.

While soft-spoken, Alanna, a member of Poundmaker Cree Nation, does not mince her words. Her story is gripping and one that inspires hope, determination, and lessons for those in need of new organs.

It started when Alanna was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-20s. “I didn’t know that rheumatoid arthritis can attack your major organs until it happened to me,” she says. Her condition progressed slowly. She developed asthma, and a few years later it progressed to fibrosis. “It took a long time for them to figure out where it was coming from.”

In 2013, “I needed to be on oxygen 24/7,” she says. “I was working, and it was just getting more and more difficult to walk and move around without running out of breath.” Alanna was told she might eventually need a lung transplant, but she wasn’t at the point of being placed on the transplant waiting list.

In late March 2014, Alanna got the flu and “everything spiraled so fast.” She was placed on the transplant waiting list. By April, Alanna was put on life-support in the form of an ECMO machine that was next to her hospital bed to pump her blood and provide it with oxygen so that her body could get rid of carbon dioxide.

“I was tired of not being able to breathe anymore,” she says. “I told my family, two weeks. I don’t want to be on this machine for more than two weeks.” Her family respected her decision. “I had to say my goodbyes to everyone. That was the most difficult part.”

Then Alanna’s son, Nelson, surprised her saying, “Mom, you can’t go yet, you’re going to be a grandma,” as he showed her the picture of an ultrasound.

“It was such an emotional time,” Alanna recalls, adding that shortly after that she had an out-of-body experience. “I remember traveling, leaving my body and it was so fast like a Star Wars scene where you’re going at warp speed,” she says. “All of the sudden this ultrasound picture popped up in front of me and I just jerked, and I stopped. I slowly came back to my body. My granddaughter, she basically kept me here, I believe.”

About 10 days after going on the ECMO machine, Alanna’s husband got a call from doctors saying donated lungs were available for his wife. She had received a double lung transplant at the end of April. Because Alanna had been on the ECMO machine, it took several months for her to get back home.

“I told the doctors that I want to dance again. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. I just want to be out there in my regalia again. I want to dance with my granddaughter. I want to dance with my husband, I want to dance with my whole family again. That was part of my healing journey.”

And she did. Her granddaughter arrived in August 2014, and not long after that, Alanna was able to dance again in powwows. “I was always trying to stay healthy,” she says, “working out, dancing, staying active, staying on my medication.” She had an even deeper appreciation for life.

But in 2016, she noticed being winded doing basic household work. “I was in chronic (organ) rejection.” She went through a range of emotions, blaming herself. “But Native Americans have a really strong spirituality and faith. That’s what kept me going, our culture,” she said. She wanted to see her granddaughter and now her other grandchildren grow. Unlike years earlier, this time Alanna was determined to live.

She needed that grit. The Canadian hospital where she got her first transplant would not attempt a second transplant, concerned it would be unsuccessful. Alanna did a full-court press to find out what transplant centers in the United States performed second transplantations with high success rates. She found one in Phoenix—where her son’s family lived.

That hospital agreed to run several weeks of tests and in August 2019, Alanna was put back on the transplant waiting list. She later received a second double lung transplant. Unlike the first time, there were no complications and she walked out of the hospital eight days later.

Each April and September—the anniversaries of her two transplants—Alanna ceremonially feeds the spirit of each of her donors. She continues to dance, enjoy her entire family, lift weights, walk, and is working toward her next goal: “to be able to jog again.”

You could help someone else live a full life. Register as an organ, eye, and tissue donor today.

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