A Newark woman got a second chance at life and it’s one she won’t squander. Instead, she’s spending it helping others become survivors.
At 19 years old, Brianna Fogelman of Newark was experiencing shortness of breath and coughing. She thought it was just asthma.
"I just couldn't catch my breath at all. Even when I would laugh, I would lose my breath," she said.
She was first treated at Christiana Hospital, where she was diagnosed with hypersensitivity pneumonitis.
"It just means that your body is hypersensitive, very allergic to a specific antigen. My antigen was birds...anything with feathers, even if it's down pillows, down blankets," she said.
By then, her lung capacity was only functioning at 60%. They removed birds from the home, but her condition didn't get better.
"Usually when you're removed from the antigen, it just gets better, but mine was getting worse, and worse, and worse, so over the years, I was going down, and by maybe 24 years old, [my lung capacity] was down to 40%," she said.
She went to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, for a second opinion. They told her: “sooner or later" she was going to need a lung transplant.
"I was young, and I thought, I can beat this; I can do this, I'll be fine," she said.
In her junior year of nursing school at Wesley College in October of 2018, she learned that her transplant need would ultimately become dire.
"I had collapsed lungs...I developed pneumonia. I pretty much was on 10 liters of oxygen--the highest; my husband had to wash me up, had to shower me--I couldn't walk," she said. “I remember going to take my final with my chest tube in my chest and going to school with all of that."
She was admitted to Johns Hopkins June 4, 2019, about two weeks before her wedding.
"I was dying...they were trying to wait until after my wedding to do my transplant, and in my mind I'm like ‘oh I'm going to walk down the aisle with my wedding dress and my oxygen on’...I was just unrealistic, and I was just so wrapped up in not believing that I had to have a transplant."
She got her transplant June 24, and was back in school to complete her senior year by August. After graduation, she saw her dreams come true. She was hired at the hospital that saved her life.
"They kind of saw how I was struggling and how I was so determined to finish school on time; I guess I kind of gained their respect that way," Fogelman said. "Hopkins was pretty much on my side about everything, and they were just really understanding, and they understood that I didn't want to sulk. Whatever happened, I wanted to be grateful; I wanted to live and I wanted to live my life, so they just backed me 100%."
She came in for an interview and was hired on-the-spot. Fogelman now works with thoracic surgical patients, bringing both her positive attitude and a special kind of empathy that's rarely seen. She hopes her story inspires others who are going through what she endured.
"I think it'll bring a lot of positivity to the hospital and a lot of positivity to other lung transplant recipients—that it's not the end of the world, and you should just really try to live your life," she said.
Her second chance wouldn’t have been possible without organ donors; giving the gift of life to another is something she hopes more people will consider. She encourages her patients to stay positive and motivated through what can be a lengthy wait and painful process.
"Keep moving, keep going...not everybody gets a second chance at life; when you are able to get a second chance at life, it's like you have a different meaning and a different vision about life and about what matters and what doesn't matter," she said. "Even if you're in the difficult situation--like me--declining very rapidly, not knowing if you're going to live the next day...get rooted in something that will keep you going, get rooted in something that will bring support...just make sure you try to have a positive attitude no matter how hard things get."
And for her, that second chance is everything.
"The ability to be able to breathe is something that people take for granted," she said.
As a survivor, herself, she called it an honor to help others through what can be a difficult, challenging prognosis.
"It honestly gets me very emotional because to be able to work with the people who saved my life, I feel like very empowered; I feel motivated; I feel thankful, and I just feel elated that I get to be able to give back," she said.