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New Minas woman breathing easy after double lung transplant

Harold Amberman and his wife, Debbie Cavanagh-Amberman, are settling into their old routine while Cavanagh-Amberman is enjoying a second chance at life following a double lung transplant in Toronto.
Harold Amberman and his wife, Debbie Cavanagh-Amberman, are settling into their old routine while Cavanagh-Amberman is enjoying a second chance at life following a double lung transplant in Toronto.

NEW MINAS - Debbie Cavanagh-Amberman is down one oxygen tank and up two new lungs.

“It’s a miracle,” the New Minas resident said in an interview Oct. 30.

The transplant day – July 14 – was a long time coming. Cavanagh-Amberman first left for Ontario in March, marking the beginning of an era of uncertainty she won’t soon forget.

“That was the loneliest time in the world,” she said.

After months of living as an in-patient at Toronto General Hospital, she started to wonder if a healthy set of lungs that were a match for her body would ever become available.

“We were to the point of almost giving up,” she said.

Her husband, Harold Amberman, stayed in nearby Hamilton, but was often only able to visit twice a week due to the costs associated with travelling into Toronto.

Weeks turned into months at Toronto General, and time continued to be of the essence as interstitial pulmonary fibrosis continued to attack the air sacs in her lungs.

“They didn’t know why I was still alive, my lungs were so bad,” she said, adding that she had to be revived twice, and her husband was warned that doctors weren’t sure they’d be able to bring her back.

“It’s very scary, very scary.”

She was bedridden, under constant video surveillance and requiring as much as 45 litres of oxygen to be able to get up and go to the washroom with assistance leading up to the transplant. She was down – way, way down – but never out.

“I wasn’t willing to give up yet,” Cavanagh-Amberman recalled. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to do yet,” she added, winking at her husband.

A second chance at life

Family and friends anxiously waited for more than 12 hours for the surgeon to confirm the transplant was complete. Cavanagh-Amberman still struggles to find words when she imagines what she’d say to the donor’s family if she had a chance to connect with them.

“I’ve tried to write a thank you letter, but then I get emotional and I can’t finish it. Thank you just doesn’t cut it; it’s not big enough,” she said.

She hopes her story will inspire others to sign their donor cards, and encourage their friends and family to do the same.

“Without this donor, I wouldn’t be here and it’s such a simple thing to do. One person can save eight lives,” she said.

“Whoever was good enough to give me these lungs, they’ll never see a cigarette pass through these lips.”

She believes she partially has her undeniable stubborn streak to thank for the determination that made it possible to find the strength to hang on while yearning to go home to her family and friends in Nova Scotia.

 “They didn’t know why I was still alive, and I was fighting as hard as I could to stay alive because I just wasn’t done living my life yet,” she said.

Donations poured in when the Kings County couple was forced to turn to online crowd funding campaigns and community benefits in hopes of getting some much-needed donations to help Amberman take time off of work to be by his wife’s side during the fight of her life.

“It’s just nice to know there’s still those kinds of people in this world,” said Cavanagh-Amberman, who used to dress up in a full-sized chicken costume and dance in public to collect money for various local charities.

“It was a hard thing to have to ask for help. If someone needs help, we’ll be there.”

A happy homecoming

Amberman said his long-time employers at Eden Valley Poultry in Berwick allowed him to extend his return date on three occasions to make it possible for him to stay close to his wife in Toronto.

“It was unreal,” he said.

“It’s good to have it behind us, I’ll tell you that. Once in a lifetime is enough.”

Cavanagh-Amberman has strict recovery guidelines to follow after returning home Thanksgiving weekend. She has anti-rejection medications to take, a detailed exercise plan to follow, regular hospital appointments and check-ups in Toronto every three months.

She’s learned to appreciate the small things, and be mindful of life’s simple pleasures.

She fondly remembers her husband helping her get situated into a wheelchair as soon as it was possible following her transplant, and announcing that he was taking her for her first stroll outdoors since the bedridden days preceding the surgery.

“When that sun hit my face it was just like a kiss of life,” she said.

With her lung function back at 98 per cent, Cavanagh-Amberman excitedly reports that she’s back to breathing on her own, walking, doing errands and raking the yard with her grandchildren.

“I’m a happy lady these days.”

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