Marcia Fraser trembled in fear as she witnessed smoke billowing through New York City during the 911 attacks.
The IT specialist, who worked in Manhattan on that fateful day, said she could feel the sidewalks tremor beneath her feet.
“There was a sea of people; there was just nowhere to go,” said Fraser, who now lives in Fremont, Michigan. “I remember getting herded like cattle onto a northbound train. It was packed to capacity and people were still coming in.”
Soot and ash blackened the faces, arms and legs of her fellow travelers. They looked like characters from a fictional horror film.
“Their faces were expressionless,” Fraser recalled. “They were too traumatized to even speak.”
Believed to be unrelated to 9/11, Fraser experienced another trauma 13 years later, one that left her face expressionless, and her mind too traumatized to speak.
Fraser is a marathon runner. She’s competed in 36 of them. She’s healthy. Fit. A model of endurance. Practically a Wheaties box candidate.
“I’ve run roads for 35 years,” said Fraser, now 71. “I was training for a marathon in Dublin, Ireland. It would be my first international marathon. I was having trouble going up hills.”
She made repeat visits to a pulmonologist who treated her with antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection, then pneumonia.
Nothing they could do
“They referred me to the cutting edge of technology,” Fraser said, talking about a hospital in New York.
Further testing revealed a finish line she wasn’t willing to accept—a terminal diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis, scarring of the lungs.
Doctors said the disease was too advanced for a transplant. There was nothing they could do. They predicted three months to live.
She said, ‘I think we can help you, but we have to act fast.’ Through all of the doctors I had seen, this was the first ray of hope that I had.
“They said the only thing we can tell you is to go home and make out your will,” she said. “I guess I was too sick to absorb the words. I wasn’t hysterical. I didn’t break down. It was pretty much like they had just told me it was supposed to rain tomorrow.”
Fraser called her family members and shared the horrible news.
Her daughter, Kristen, a Grant, Michigan, middle school teacher, insisted that Fraser come to Michigan for a second opinion from Spectrum Health.
Kristen reached out to Shelley Schmidt, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group pulmonary fibrosis specialist.
Fraser arrived in Michigan on August 11, 2014. Within four days, she sat in Dr. Schmidt’s office.
The first ray of hope
“She started running a battery of tests and the results were indeed pulmonary fibrosis in very advanced stages. I’ll never forget these words,” Fraser said just before she paused and started crying. “She said, ‘I think we can help you, but we have to act fast.’ Through all of the doctors I had seen, this was the first ray of hope that I had.”
Dr. Schmidt said Fraser suffered from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
“Pulmonary fibrosis is more common than most physicians realize,” Dr. Schmidt said. “National studies would suggest we have about 30 patients with pulmonary fibrosis in Kent County (Michigan), but our pulmonary practice alone has hundreds.”
Unlike the doctors in New York, Dr. Schmidt believed Fraser would do well with a lung transplant. She referred Fraser to Reda Girgis, MD, a lung transplant specialist at Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant Center.
“He said, ‘We have to move fast to get you on the transplant list,’” Fraser recalled. “Up until that point no one even told me I could have a transplant. New York said ‘You’re going to die.’ Nobody gave me any kind of hope.”
Even with new hope, the rays seemed slim. Fraser burned 4,000 calories a day, just breathing. She had no energy for anything else. She dropped from 105 to 72 pounds.
“We were trying to beat the clock,” she said.
Fraser noticed irony. She had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis at age 69. Her father died of lung disease at age 69.
“They told us he had pulmonary arthritis; that his lungs had lost their elasticity,” she said. “He was more or less smothering.”
So was Fraser. She got bumped to No. 1 on the Michigan transplant list. Good fortune, for sure. But the catch? Because of her small stature, doctors warned it may be difficult to find a suitable lung.
Waiting for a match
In November, as Fraser lie in the hospital with a feeding tube, Dr. Girgis announced a suitable donor had been located.
“We were elated,” she said. “But that was the year we had the snowstorm that paralyzed the whole area. They closed down the airport. The transplant team got out, but they couldn’t get back in. They had to leave the lung. There was another person on the heart floor waiting for the person’s heart. He never got it. They sent us home.”
Ms. Fraser has worked hard to do well. She has more grit than most people I’ve known. She has her life back after transplant, which is marvelous to see.
The clock continued ticking. No one needed to remind Fraser that more than three months had passed since her “three months to live” prognosis.
Her faith sustained her. She continued to believe, in life and in miracles.
On January 13, 2015, at 6:30 in the morning, her phone rang.
The news? “You have a donor. You have to get to the hospital right away and you should have a new lung by tonight.”
The transplant team flew out to visually inspect the lung. Compatibility tests matched.
She had the new lung transplanted in the wee hours of January 14, 2015, her father’s birthday.
She spent a month in the hospital and by early April, her new lung sustained walking 2 miles a day.
She’s now up to running 5 miles a day and ran the Fifth Third River Bank Run in Grand Rapids last May. She’s training for a Turkey Trot Run in her new hometown of Fremont, Michigan, this fall.
Dr. Schmidt said Fraser is doing amazingly well.
“She is back running and doing amazing,” Dr. Schmidt said. “Lung transplant is a complex treatment that requires a lot of medications and follow-up. It’s not for all patients. It hasn’t always been easy. Ms. Fraser has worked hard to do well. She has more grit than most people I’ve known. She has her life back after transplant, which is marvelous to see.”
Fraser has regained confidence in her breathing and in her running ability.
“I actually feel as though I have never been sick,” she said. “It’s not me doing this, it’s the Lord. Apparently I still have some of His work to do here and he needs me around for a while.”
She just graduated with her commercial driving license and plans to drive school buses part time.
“I won’t be with young children because they tend to be little petri dishes,” said Fraser, who still battles a compromised immune system. “Being as I’m so athletic, to me it made perfect sense to drive sports buses.”
Fraser said she feels she’s been given so much and she just wants to give back. She often buys goodie bags, clothes and shoes for poor children in the middle school where her daughter teaches.
“She teaches a lot of migrant children and she tells me stories about the children and their hardships,” Fraser said. “I’m kind of an anonymous donor. They’re just real good people, but they don’t have the means. They come to school with shoes but no socks. No jacket. Children shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Fraser provides mittens for those who have none, socks for bare feet and movie tickets for those who have never been in a theater.
No one at school besides her daughter knows who is doing the gifting. Fraser doesn’t want fame or thanks. She only wants to reciprocate from her soul.
“That’s my way of trying to do unto others what God has done so good for me,” she said.