MORAGA, Calif. (KTVU) - It has been a recent series of firsts for 42-year-old Laura Zellmer since she became the recipient of a new set of lungs. So it was nothing short of fitting when for the first time this year, she was able to attend her son's baseball game, and his little league teammates marked this "first" by donning eye-black that read "Laura Strong."
In March, after almost a year of being on a donor transplant list, and after a couple of close calls and dashed hopes, the Moraga mother got the word that she, her family and friends had all been waiting and praying for: Laura would be getting new lungs.
At the age of one, Zellmer was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes chronic lung infections and over time limits the ability to breathe.
Following her diagnosis, doctors speculated that she would not live past her early childhood years.
But what her family quickly learned was that this bright, happy child was a fighter and through the years she would prove time and time again that her fighting spirit along with her indomitable optimism would defy the odds presented before her.
For Laura, living with cystic fibrosis meant she was in and out of hospitals. Her coughing fits were extremely difficult as the thick mucus associated with CF blocks the airways, making breathing increasingly challenging.
She was put on oxygen therapy so she could receive a continual source of oxygen to help her breathe. About 10 years ago, she had to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach to help bring nutrients and enough calories into her body.
So it was in mid-March as Laura's condition had been declining and she was feeling worse with each passing day that she was brought to the ER and eventually admitted into the intensive care unit at UCSF Medical Center, which has one of the top lung transplant programs in the world.
She was at the hospital on Easter Sunday, on March 27, when she received word of a donor with healthy lungs. Doctors told her to be prepared to undergo surgery.
While it was exciting news, there had been similar notifications before-- moments of hope ending with a transplant not coming through at the very last minute, for varying reasons.
But no matter how many previous letdowns, Laura continued to hold out hope.
Her husband Kevin, who has been diligently chronicling all of the developments in his wife's health in a blog, noted that day that it was Easter 2003 when he proposed to Laura, and Laura believed it would be again on Easter that a life transforming event would occur and that her transplant would go forward.
And she was right. That day she underwent a successful double lung transplant and was given a chance for a new beginning.
The weeks that followed included rehabilitation, therapy, and lots of medication. The pain was severe post operation.
After being released from the hospital, Laura and Kevin remained in San Francisco, renting out a flat to be close to UCSF for the frequent checkups and tests Laura would have to undergo.
Less than a week after being released from the hospital, Laura had to be readmitted for several days when it appeared she wasn’t improving and lab tests showed that her red blood count, sodium, and iron levels were going in the wrong direction.
But in true Laura spirit, she continued working hard and fighting to make strides in her recovery. In the coming days she gained strength, increased her mobility and saw other marked improvements in her health. She had a new lease on life.
For the first time in years, she started enjoying food again.
Kevin wrote, "Her appetite is back... She has cravings and food sounds and tastes great." Eating was once so taxing because her body had to work so hard just to breathe.
Just the other day, she celebrated the first time in years she had enough strength to be able to sing in the shower, the first time in a long while she was able to play basketball with her son.
And now there are long walks and even hikes, which would have been impossible just a couple of months ago.
Kevin recently wrote of how the family enjoyed a sunset hike at Land's End. “Laura made it down the water and back up the stairs with no issues." He describes these moments as amazing and unbelievable.
Kevin acknowledges that the road ahead will not always be smooth.
“We know there will be ups and downs and hospital stays will occasionally happen,” Kevin says.
And he and Laura have gratefully accepted this as their “new norm.” Before the transplant, life was full of ups and downs with much time spent in hospitals.
“But now in between we get to live,” says Kevin.
On Saturday Laura and Kevin finally returned home to Moraga.
It was a huge step toward returning to a sense of normalcy.
It was just the week before they got to attend their son's baseball game. "Laura Strong" painted on the little faces of the young baseball players expressed a community's support and admiration for this strong, battling warrior.
And written on her own 8-year-old's face was a minor variation but the message even more powerful. It simply read, "Mom Strong."