Many UCF students are returning home to be with family for Thanksgiving. But for Jordan McCaskill, that trip will hold special meaning. She spent the past two months at Florida Hospital, receiving the second lung transplant of her young life.
McCaskill, a 20-year-old English major, was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that among other things damages the lungs. When she was born, the average life expectancy for someone with the incurable condition was 18 years; it’s now in the mid-40s.
She received her first lung transplant in December 2013.
“2014/early 2015 was the best time of my life,” McCaskill wrote in her blog. “I felt normal for the first time. I bought my first car with my own money. I finished a year of college. I finally dated people. I made great friends. I made plans for my future. I finally knew what it was like to live like I had a future.”
But her body’s immune system began to reject her new lungs. McCaskill had grown up facing her own mortality. The lung transplant brought hope, but as her lung function deteriorated so did her chances of survival.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get a second transplant, because it’s risky,” said the Lake Mary High School graduate. “Going into the surgery, you don’t know if you’re going to get off the table.”
At Florida Hospital Orlando, heart and thoracic surgeon Dr. Duane Davis and pulmonologist Dr. Cynthia Gries knew the risks.
“Second-time transplants are a lot more complicated,” Davis said. “There are a lot of centers that choose not to do second transplants.”
Even so, Davis and Gries worked to make sure McCaskill received another set of lungs.
She went to the hospital for tests Sept. 30, but the tests caused her lungs to fail. She was admitted immediately with the knowledge that she would not survive if she didn’t make the transplant list and compatible donor lungs weren’t found.
In the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Florida Hospital, she was on a ventilator, had two chest tubes and a feeding tube. An extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, or ECMO, took the place of her lungs by pumping blood from her body, removing carbon dioxide, oxygenating it and pumping it back in.
Finally, the life-saving second transplant came Oct. 28. The eight-hour surgery was successful, but McCaskill has remained in the hospital ever since as she recovers, regains her strength and learns to breathe on her own again.
She’s expected to be released in time to join her family in Maitland for Thanksgiving.
“I’m thankful for both my donors and both my doctors,” she said. “[My doctors] believed in me and gave me a second chance, and I’m grateful for that.”
McCaskill is looking forward to being with her family, sleeping in her own bed, her father’s green beans and returning to her job as a server at Bonefish Grill.
She’s also excited about jumpstarting her creative-writing studies at the University of Central Florida. She was forced to elect a medical withdrawal this semester as her health worsened.
“I feel great, better than I’ve felt in six months – I can breathe,” McCaskill said. “Most people don’t have a near-death experience, and I’ve had two. It’s something I don’t take for granted.”