Moraga mother waits for new lungs for a second time

- For a second time in her life, 44-year-old Laura Zellmer is waiting to receive a double lung transplant. 

The Moraga woman was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes chronic lung infections and over time limits the ability to breathe.

She received a new set of lungs in 2016 and for more than a year lived a healthy, active life that included skiing, paddle boarding, hiking with her husband and playing basketball with her young son. 

But, this past July, while on a trip to the mountains, Zellmer’s health started to decline: her lung function was decreasing rapidly. Within just a few months, she was hooked up to oxygen and back on the transplant list. 

For reasons that doctors don’t know, Zellmer’s body had rejected the transplanted lungs, her husband Kevin Zeller said. 

It’s not uncommon. 

Some people live 10 years or more after a lung transplant, though on average just 50 percent of those who undergo the procedure are still alive after five years, according to the Mayo Clinic.

About a month ago, Zellmer was admitted to UCSF Medical Center, where she waits to receive the call that lungs have become available and that she’ll have a second chance to fight for her life. 

“We are really in a waiting mode,’’ Kevin Zeller said. “It’s essentially a race against the clock.” 

But the Zellmers aren’t doing that race alone. 

Before Zellmer fell ill last summer, the couple were planning to start a nonprofit foundation to give financial and emotional support to other lung transplant patients. Now, friends in the Bay Area and across the nation have formed the “Team Laura” Facebook group to continue their vision to help others who need lung transplants. 

So far, supporters have raised more than $15,000 through donations and T-shirt sales. They've also started a campaign to get more people to register as organ donors, and so far have registered 92 people through the Donate Life website.

As they wait to receive the potentially life-saving call, the Zellmers find comfort in knowing that their efforts could make life a little easier for someone whose lungs have failed because of cystic fibrosis or for other reasons. 

When Zellmer was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age one, doctors said she wouldn’t likely survive through childhood. On average, people with the disease live into their mid- to late 30s, though some survive into their 40s and 50s.

But, those who know Zellmer say she is a natural born fighter. And she proved doctors wrong, Still, her childhood and her adult years were marked with constant health challenges, hospital stays, and daily limitations.

Sometimes even walking up stairs was tough. She’s had to wear an oxygen mask to help her breathe and rely on a feeding tube to get the nutrients and calories she needed to stay strong. Struggling to breathe burns the body’s fuel at a rapid rate and keeping weight on can be challenging for people whose lungs are failing. 

Still, she lived her life, married and had a child, Everett, 11 years ago. She also spent a decade working on a documentary about living with cystic fibrosis. “Breathe in Life” debuted at the California Independent Film Festival in 2014 and was nominated for Best Documentary Short.  

But several years ago, her health took a turn for the worse and she was admitted into the intensive care unit at UCSF Medical Center. 

Doctors determined she could not survive without a double lung transplant. 

After months of rigorous testing, Zellmer was placed on a transplant list in May 2015. For months, she waited for news that healthy lungs were a match and were en route to San Francisco. 

There were times when she was told of a possible match, but later notified that something had gone wrong and the lungs were no longer considered good enough to transplant. Hopes were raised and dashed as Zellmer battled to stay strong and healthy enough to undergo the surgery. 

In March 2016, she received a new set of lungs at UCSF Medical Center, which has a top-rated transplant program that has helped more than 700 people receive new lungs since the program began nearly 30 years ago. 

The transplant was a success and as the days turned into months, Zellmer gained strength, increased her mobility and was able to enjoy eating solid food again. She played basketball with her young son, hiked with her husband and no longer struggled to climb a flight of stairs. Within a year, she was able to take a trip to the mountains and handle the altitude without problems. 

In an interview for a KTVU story last year, Zellmer talked about how the first transplant changed her life. It was in that same interview that she also offered a special and moving thank you to the donor for "these beautiful, strong lungs" and for giving "me back my life."

As the messages of support grow on the “Team Laura” Facebook page, it is everyone’s hope that Zellmer will soon be writing those thankful words again. 

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