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Vickroy: A year after transplant, Homewood student breathing easy

Josie Nordman Homewood underwent double lung transplant last summer. She's pictured with her horse Loki. | Supplied photo

Josie Nordman, of Homewood, underwent a double lung transplant last summer. She's pictured with her horse, Loki. | Supplied photo

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Updated: September 27, 2014 6:10AM



For most of 21-year-old Josie Nordman’s life, the simple act of breathing has been a struggle.

Born with cystic fibrosis, the Homewood resident was accustomed to being in and out of hospitals. Her condition made her prone to lung infections and other ailments.

Throughout her years at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, she was a “frequent flier” at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, where she would undergo antibiotic therapy and breathing treatments.

She thought she was lucky in 2004 when the Make-a-Wish Foundation presented her with her own horse. But as her condition progressively worsened over the years, Nordman began wishing for something greater than her beloved pet — a new chance at life.

The Northwestern University junior got her second big wish when she underwent a double lung transplant 13 months ago.

“I feel great,” she said, sipping on hot tea at a local Panera Bread recently.

She had surgery in July 2013 at the University of Chicago. Five days later, she went home, and three months after that she was back on her horse, Loki.

Though Nordman is the picture of health today, for a time leading up to the transplant she carried a 6- to 7-pound oxygen tank everywhere she went.

She vividly remembers the time the tube and mask finally came off, two days after the operation. She was walking down the hospital hall with one of her longtime therapists, and the two decided to try it.

“It was the first time I’d been without oxygen in eight or nine months,” she said. “I just started crying. It was very emotional.”

Since then, Nordman has resumed her studies, even landing the starring role in a student production of “Peter Pan.” She’s also back at the helm of the Northwestern equestrian club.

If she seemed almost unstoppable before the transplant — insisting that she go away to school, despite her parents’ concerns, and insisting that she stay at school even after her oxygen level dropped to 15 percent — she now is a dynamo.

Now, with a solid good year under her belt, Nordman is eager to get back to Evanston to resume her studies as a theater major.

It has been a long struggle, she said, but she never gave up and has never felt better. Now, she has her sights set on other kinds of milestones.

“I was always interested in theater,” she said. “I grew up going to see shows, loving movies and books.”

In 2011, she graduated ninth in her H-F class of 750. It helped that she was smart and received “lots of support and attendance concessions,” she said, especially because she spent much of junior and senior years in and out of the hospital.

Nordman said there are so many who have helped her lead as normal a life as possible — her family, her H-F teachers, her Northwestern community and the pulmonologist she had from infancy until the doctor’s recent retirement. Lucille Lester was the first physician to believe Nordman’s mother’s claim that there was something wrong with her child, Nordman said.

“That was back before they screened for (cystic fibrosis),” she said.

In the difficult months before her surgery, Nordman’s Northwestern classmates helped her produce her first play, Ecclesiazusae’, a musical based on a Greek play. Students she didn’t even know held fundraisers on her behalf.

And she can’t say enough about the medical team at U of C, which nursed her back to health and put up with her occasional stubbornness. She vividly recalls the times she simply refused to work with therapists as well as the times she begged her doctor for permission to continue classes — even in the critical months following the transplant when the risk of infection was high.

The six weeks after the transplant were really hard, she said, because she was restricted from being in public.

“I couldn’t drive, and I was kind of stuck at my grandma’s house (in Park Forest),” Nordman said.

Because her Homewood house is home to a bunch of pets, her doctors didn’t want her staying there during her recovery.

“Being involved and being able to stay at school really kept me healthy,” she said. “That is possibly what kept me alive up to the transplant. Just because I had something to do every day. My doctor understood that.”

A big concern was whether Nordman could resume riding her horse after the transplant.

“That was a huge part of my life,” she said. “But I was told initially I’d never be able to go in a barn, that I’d have to be careful around horses. I got really depressed.”

She discussed the issue with Dr. Edward Garrity, who handled her pre- and post-operative care, and he told her they’d revisit the topic after six months.

“I told him if I couldn’t go in the barn, I’d have to give up being in the equestrian club. And I showed him pictures of how clean the barn at Northwestern is. It’s cleaner than my house,” she said. “He said OK.”

Shortly after the transplant, Nordman was hospitalized because of a bad reaction to an anti-fungal drug, but she has not had any lung-related problems thus far.

“I feel great, really great. But I know a lung transplant is not a cure,” she said. “It’s a really fantastic treatment. It gives a lot of people a chance to live, but there are a lot of things to be conscious of. Signs of infection, the environment you’re in, does it have mold?” she said. “It’s a little bit scary to think about if things go bad, going back to all that.”

So she tries to stay positive, recognizing that she has much to be grateful for. She’s written a letter to the family who donated the lungs, and her doctor will make sure it’s forwarded.

“For now, I want to finish school. I’ve wanted to go into acting since I was 12. I love horses but obviously that’s not a super viable career option anymore, although I am interested in exercising racehorses,” she said. “I really want to act. I know it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, ha ha, what’s your day job gonna be?’ But that’s what I want to do.”

Considering the obstacles she has overcome, is that really a pipe dream?

To learn more about Nordman, visit the Josie Nordman Lung Transplant Page on Facebook.



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