AUGUSTA – Christine Lowell’s every breath relies on lungs that once belonged to her father and her uncle.
Their gifts have kept her alive for the past 16 years.
She was only 16 and dying of end stage lung disease from cystic fibrosis when father Walter and uncle David Lowell each donated a lobe of their lungs so she could live.
Lowell, now 32, is a petite woman who is among the longest-lived double lung transplant recipients who had living donors. Most transplants today use organs from cadavers.
Bright-eyed and smiling frequently, she is passionate as she advocates for more people to become organ donors.
According to the website of the New England Organ Bank, a federally designated organ procurement group, more than 114,000 U.S. citizens “are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants and many more wait for donated tissues.”
An average of 17 people in the U.S. die every day — 6,600 each year — while waiting for an organ transplant, according to the website. The reason is a shortage of donated organs and tissues, it says.
As part of April Donate Life Month, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who has long supported organ donation, hosted a news conference with representatives from the organ bank. Dunlap said of 989,147 active driver’s licenses in Maine, about 510,462 people have indicated they are willing to be organ donors.
Mainers who might not have driver’s licenses can indicate their willingness through an Organ Donor Registry offered on the secretary of state’s website.
“We want to encourage this as much as possible,” Dunlap said. “It’s (a) little bit easier now for people in that situation (to) have their wishes known in a more timely fashion. These are tragedies, but you can make something good out of it.”
In the winter of 1997, Lowell’s family moved to St. Louis during the winter. Lung nodes were removed from David and Walter Lowell at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, put inside a Styrofoam cooler and rushed across the street to Children’s Hospital on Jan. 28, 1997.
“Part of the beauty of that kind of transplant is that the lobes I would receive would fill my chest cavity and give me normal lung function,” Christine Lowell said. “Their residual lung tissue expanded to fill the space.”
The result was miraculous.
“It was really such a dramatic change from end-stage lung disease to feeling really free in my own body,” she said. Each year the family celebrates the anniversary of the surgery as a second birthday for her.
She celebrated “the simple pleasures in life. I could taste food, enjoy a meal.”
Her Cony High School class of 1999 donated half of its Project Graduation money to help with costs her parents’ insurance didn’t cover; Prince of Peace Lutheran Church raised money, as did numerous community groups and organizations.
Walter Lowell said he would arrive home in Augusta to find someone had plowed their driveway and someone had left groceries on their porch.
“Despite having all of these challenges, we did experience the best of humanity from neighbors, family and friends,” he said.
David Lowell, 68, of Cumberland Center, later he donated 60 percent of his liver to his son, Andrew, whose cystic fibrosis targeted his liver, and who died in 2001 at age 24.
On Friday, he embarked on his 10th mission trip to the Global Health Ministry’s mission in the foothills of southeastern Guatemala. There, Lowell, who has been a doctor of optometry in Maine for almost 42 years, performs eye examinations, provides glasses free of charge and refers patients for surgery.
“We really need to make people aware of organ transplantation,” he said. “Every family should talk about it, because there’s a big need out there.”
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: