Battling to breathe

Aiding a young Paradise native in her struggle with cystic fibrosis

Kayla Healy, a 17-year-old Paradise native with cystic fibrosis, is awaiting a double-lung transplant.

Kayla Healy, a 17-year-old Paradise native with cystic fibrosis, is awaiting a double-lung transplant.

Photo By teri healy

Kayla Healy was born into a close-knit family. So when she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was just 5 months old, her loved ones banded together, offering support to one another and especially baby Kayla, who was likely to struggle to breathe her entire life.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic degenerative malady that causes mucus to build up in the lungs and pancreas, making it hard for the body to breathe and digest food. Despite her disease, Healy, a Paradise native, flourished into a young woman with a passion for sports. To the bewilderment of her doctors, she’s competed in three triathlons and has maintained high spirits despite regular breathing treatments.

In early June, Healy, who moved to Seattle about five years ago to be closer to a transplant hospital, will celebrate her 18th birthday. Unlike others her age, she is awaiting a milestone most young women never have to reach: getting a double-lung transplant.

She has been on the transplant list in Seattle since September 2010, when doctors determined she was likely to live less than two years without the surgery. But recently, due to her decreasing lung function, Healy was moved up on the list. She is also using an oxygen mask and two weeks ago was required to withdraw from her Seattle high school, where she had only eight weeks left in her senior year.

There is little that she and her family—many of whom live in Paradise and Chico—can do, other than wait for the phone call that will signal the go-ahead on the procedure to save Healy’s life.

“As soon as we get a call that Kayla is getting new lungs, my father and I will be on a plane,” said Chico resident Debi Herrick, Kayla’s aunt. “We don’t care how much it costs or what it takes. We’re going.”

That same sense of urgency resonates even stronger for Lori Healy, Kayla’s mom.

“I sleep with my cell phone, and Kayla sleeps with hers,” Lori said.

Even with double insurance, the transplant is expected to cost the family between $80,000 and $100,000, Herrick said. The procedure itself ranges from $600,000 to $1 million, and the total cost rises as time goes on because regular testing is required to make sure Healy is healthy enough to withstand the procedure.

Securing a spot on the transplant list was a complicated process in itself, Herrick explained. Doctors monitored Healy closely to ensure she was pursuing her treatments, and she endured numerous meetings with doctors and dieticians.

“When we first realized how much money we needed, we thought, ‘This is an impossible task,’ ” her mother said.

In response, the Chico and Paradise communities—and communities surrounding the transplant hospital in Washington—have stepped forward to help by hosting bake sales, pizza parties, rummage sales, sporting events and other fundraisers.

So far, $84,000 has been raised for Healy’s charity through the Children’s Organ Transplant Association.

“It’s amazing to me how willing people are to support us,” offered Lori Healy, a Paradise native. “It makes me tear up every time I think about it.”

This Saturday (May 14), Paradise resident Dan Bailey will help host a fundraiser in which all proceeds will go toward Healy’s medical costs. The event, which is being held at a private residence along Butte Creek, will feature more than a dozen local bands and dozens of artists who will showcase their work in Healy’s honor.

Bailey, who does not know Healy personally, decided to host the benefit after hearing about her condition through a friend of the family.

“[Kayla] was born the day I graduated from high school; we were born at the same hospital,” said Bailey, a fifth-generation Paradise native who was born at Feather River Hospital.

The all-day event came together in about three weeks, simply through word of mouth and “friends helping friends,” Bailey said. Numerous local businesses and individuals will also volunteer their time and donate raffle prizes.

That kind of outreach has become the norm in the Chico and Paradise communities, and the generosity has kept the family afloat, Herrick said.

“We are the type of family where everything counts. We pick up pennies in parking lots because every penny you pick up, it adds up,” she said. “Some feel bad that they can only give a dollar, but that’s a dollar more than we had a second ago.”

Healy has maintained her spirits throughout her life and during the last two years, when her health has taken a turn for the worse. Her gracious and humble character has been evident throughout the fundraising process, especially when she found out she had been granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants “wishes” for kids with life-threatening medical conditions.

“[Kayla] said, ‘I’m not sure if I deserve it,’ ” said Herrick, choking back tears.

The foundation sent Healy, her parents and her little sister on a cruise to Jamaica, where Healy was able to hike a portion of a waterfall and explore Haiti, a place the soft-spoken and cheery young woman describes as a “nice little island.”

When she gets her new lungs, Healy will move back to Paradise, where she most misses the weather, she said. In the future, she wants to go to college, but is waiting on her transplant to begin pursuing a specific school. She would also like to coach a sport (softball is her favorite), travel the world, and become a nurse, since she is comfortable in hospitals and could put her experience to good use.

But her immediate plan for when she gets new lungs is simple.

“I just want to go on a jog. I used to do it all the time; it was a hobby for me. And now I’m just like, ‘God, I miss it,’ ” she said. “But I have to wait.”