A phone call late in the night on Nov. 8, 2010 marked the end of one life and the beginning of new life for North Platte resident Linda Winder.
Imagine living breath by breath. That's what Winder did as she battled emphysema, living on oxygen full-time.
Winder was a life-long smoker. She tried several times to quit but was unsuccessful. It took a life-changing crisis to motivate her, and by then the damage had been done. She found out she had COPD -- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Everything she did took her breath away. Walking across the room was exhausting. Getting dressed sometimes took hours.
“She couldn’t clean her house, garden, shop, but most of all; she couldn’t hold or play with her grandsons,” her son Todd said.
During the summer of 2010, Winder had to stay indoors, wrapped in blankets because she was chilled by the air-conditioning. Going outdoors when the humidity was high made it impossible to breathe, even with oxygen.
Everywhere that she managed to go, her oxygen tanks went with her.
A family reunion in Oregon the summer was especially memorable for Linda’s sister, Donna Simmons.
“When the time came to say goodbye, everyone became very emotional,” Donna said. “No one thought Linda would be alive for the next reunion.”
Shortly after that reunion, Linda went to her doctor in North Platte and he mentioned that she should check to see about being a candidate for a lung transplant. He gave her phone numbers of people to contact in Denver at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and lung transplant center.
She went home and started making calls.
The transplant center told her that she would first need to go to Denver for three days of testing to make sure there were no underlying issues that could prevent a transplant. They also told her that if she made the list, she would be tested to make sure she wasn't smoking anymore.
That was her final incentive never to light up again.
She returned home and waited a couple of weeks for the test results to see if she was a candidate for a transplant. She got good news on Nov. 5 -- her tests were good and she was on the list.
But she was running out of time.
“I was worried that her chances of finding a perfect donor lung were slim and it could take months,” her son Shane said.
The transplant center told her to prepare. If they called, she was to be in Denver within four hours. They told her after the operation, she would be in intensive care for a week, and would probably need to stay in Denver for three months afterwards.
Her son Todd, who lives in North Platte, volunteered to be the driver. Her sister Donna packed to go along if the call came. Linda made arrangements for family members to take care of her house if she were gone.
Patti Saathoff, a sister from Tacoma, Wash., and two other sisters planned to take turns staying with Linda in Denver after surgery.
Then, a welcome call: Just four days later, late in the evening Nov. 8, the call came. A lung was available and waiting.
Todd jumped into his car and raced to his mother’s house. Donna, who lives across the street from Linda, was there already. They were headed west on I-80 in less than a half-hour.
Todd worried about speeding or hitting a deer, compounding his worries that his mother might not make it in time for the surgery, or survive it afterwards.
During the drive to Denver, phone lines were buzzing as family and friends called each other with news.
As the news spread through the family, Linda’s son Shane said he had a sinking feeling when the phone rang late that night.
“I immediately thought that it couldn’t be good (at that time of night),” he said.
But this call was the exception. Shane immediately contacted Eppley airport in Omaha to get a ticket to fly to Denver to be there after surgery.
Linda arrived in Denver in just under four hours and she was immediately prepped for surgery.
The transplant surgery lasted nearly four hours.
Doctors said Linda would not be able to remove her breathing tube until the next day; she would be in ICU for a week and then stay in the hospital for about a month.
But Linda amazed everyone, recovering promptly. The breathing tube was removed within hours of surgery. She was in ICU for only a day-and-a-half and left the hospital after one week.
When Linda left the hospital, she was breathing on her own.
She stayed in a housing unit in the nearby Transplant Living Center, a non-profit condo for out-of-town patients at area hospitals in Denver. Linda was back home in North Platte in less than two months.
Today, Linda cleans her house, does her shopping, walks on a treadmill, gardens and walks to pick her grandsons up from school.
She takes a series of anti-rejection medications to keep fungal, bacterial and viral infections at bay, because her body could “reject” the new lung anytime. She will never eat grapefruit again, because of an enzyme that could cause problems.
But it's worth it, she says.
When asked if she ever wants to smoke again, she said, "I don't have the urge to light up, but once in awhile I smell a cigarette and it smells good. But then, the next one smells terrible."
Her family is happy.
“I’m thankful that she will be around to see the birth of my first born son. It was something I thought I would never see happen,” her son Shane said.
In July, Linda will attend a family reunion in South Dakota.
She doesn’t know much about her donor, except is that she was a 40-year-old woman. She cannot speak to the donor’s family unless they request it.
So, every year on the anniversary of her surgery, Linda mails a card and note to the transplant center, thanking the family for the organ. The transplant center forwards the note to the family.
Linda thanks them for the greatest gift of all -- the gift of life.
Linda Winder’s sister Kaycee Anderson wrote most of this report. It was first published in the May 8 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.