Over her lifetime, Wanda Kok has suffered enough medical setbacks to get rightly discouraged.
And yet somehow, she’s still known quite well for her gratitude, cheerful smile and unabating generosity.
“I have learned to choose joy,” Kok said.
Born with a rare genetic lung disease, Kok has endured a double lung transplant, a stroke, lymphoma, a fractured back and more.
She’s now a member of the Spectrum Health Patient and Family Advisory Council. She sees the council as an opportunity to make things better for other people.
“I’m alive for a reason,” she said.
Double lung transplant
Kok, 58, was born with immotile cilia syndrome, a chronic lung disease in which the cilia—those tiny, hair-like structures—do not move as they are supposed to. This results in mucus getting stuck in various parts of the respiratory tract, leading to chronic infections and scarring that can destroy the airways, according to Reda Girgis, MD, a pulmonologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.
Before doctors diagnosed her with the disease in her 20s, Kok had figured her troubles were related to asthma.
Her condition only worsened over time. About 20 years ago, she began to rely constantly on an oxygen machine to help her breathe. She also grew accustomed to routine visits to the hospital for IV medications to treat infections.
In November 2014, one of those routine hospital trips led to some bad news.
She needed a double lung transplant.
“She was very sick,” Dr. Girgis said. “She most certainly would have died without a transplant.”
On Dec. 4, 2014, Kok underwent a double lung transplant at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
Within three days she could feel herself beginning to recover.
“I felt fantastic,” she remembered.
Then came her first setback: a stroke in the ICU.
When she woke up three days later, she couldn’t move her limbs or speak—she was hooked to a ventilator. At one point, she could finally get the finger on her right hand to move.
“Inside, I’m going, ‘I’m awake in here,’” Kok said.
The movement on her right side quickly came back, but she needed therapy for her left arm and leg. Doctors transferred her to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital Inpatient Rehabilitation Center.
About midway through February 2015 she finally went home, although she had to return for outpatient physical therapy three times a week.
She soon regained much function, but she still has limited use of her left leg.
Yet another setback came on Good Friday 2015. She fell and fractured her back in five places. She received treatment and began to recover from that, but then summer came and she fell again, breaking her arm in three places.
In October 2015 she received more bad news: lymphoma. Specifically, post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, a cancer that manifests in some transplant patients.
Dr. Girgis explained that because Kok was Epstein-Barr virus negative, which is quite uncommon, she faced greater risk of experiencing this complication.
In the five ensuing months, Kok underwent two rounds of chemotherapy.
Her cancer is now considered in remission.
She is now under the care of a gastroenterologist to deal with yet another complication—reflux that causes food to back into her larynx and lungs, causing lung damage. She underwent an initial surgery for that problem, but she may have to follow it up with another surgery in about two months.
Despite the hurdles, Kok remains deeply grateful for the gift of life.
“I would do this again in a heartbeat, even with what I have been through,” she said of the lung transplant. “It’s so cool to be able to breathe.”
Ready for tomorrow
Kok gains much of her strength from her solid faith. She’s a member of Chapel Pointe Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, where she enjoys the generous support of a close church community.
“Every step of the way, God has been here,” she said. “I would not be where I am without His blessings.”
She relies heavily on her family, including her mother, Georgene, her husband, Don, and her four children and four grandchildren.
One of her grandchildren had been born during her stay in the hospital, as she awaited a transplant.
“I still run into people who say, ‘I was praying for you,’” Kok said. “I received cards from churches I have never heard of.”
Kok’s great attitude—paired with the tremendous support she has received from family and friends—has most certainly helped her endure.
“It’s quite remarkable,” Dr. Girgis said. “She is a very strong person and has a great attitude. She has an extremely supportive family and church community. … The average person would not have been able to get through all these problems.”
While Kok misses her former work as a computer programmer, she still remains active.
Her favorite form of exercise these days is boxing at Title Boxing in Kentwood.
She has also set a goal to walk a 5K. She eased into a portion of that goal July 1, walking a mile at the Detroit Zoo. She did it for her grandson who has autism.
“I can work up to a 5K,” she said.
Kok said she loves giving back by serving on the patient council.
Wherever she goes, it’s her positive attitude and perseverance that strike people the most.
“It’s really not my story. It’s God’s story,” Kok said. “I just happen to be living it out. I’ve learned to say, ‘OK, what’s next?’ I give God all the glory.”