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WJBD - Local News - After a Lifelong Battle With Cystic Fibrosis, One Mom Gets a Breath of Fresh Air

Brandi Wilkins poses with her daughter, Elaina, and her husband Nathan.

After a Lifelong Battle With Cystic Fibrosis, One Mom Gets a Breath of Fresh Air

By Rob Sussman, WJBD News

Mothers Day is right around the corner and to honor the occasion, WJBD's Rob Sussman spoke to one local mom, Brandi Wilkins of Breese, who has a lot going for her.

Kaskaskia College Communications Professor Brandi Wilkins is a woman on the rise. She just accepted a full professorship from the college and is getting ready to celebrate her third mothers day as well as her daughter Elaina's third birthday in the coming months. Remarkable milestones by any metric, however, one thing about Professor Wilkins makes those milestones just a bit more remarkable.

Brandi Wilkins has only recently learned how to breathe. 

At the age of 8, Wilkins was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, making breathing difficult and resulting in serious medical problems, such as lung infections and pancreatic cysts.

"My second cousin was diagnosed as a newborn, and the doctor--her doctor--told us to bring in anybody who had symptoms of lung disease, and that's when my brother and I got diagnosed" Wilkins told WJBD.

Wilkins spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals, but never let her condition stop her from doing the things she wanted to do.

"Mainly, my parents never let the CF be something that kept us from doing things" said Wilkins, "I always led a normal life, as normal as I could, I guess."

Cystic Fibrosis, however, had other plans. In 2012, nine months after the adoption of her daughter, Wilkins came down with a severe lung infection, the most severe she had ever experienced.

"I almost didn't recover. I got extremely ill, lost a ton of weight, and had no strength at all. Thats when the doctor said that we needed to recuperate [me] enough so that I could get listed for transplant" Wilkins said.

After being put on oxygen and taking leave from work, Wilkins worked hard to get healthy enough to qualify for a full lung transplant--a transplant that could save her life and let her live free of the disease that plagued her for over 30 years. She put on weight and was constantly going in for medical tests. Then, on December 17th, Wilkins got the call. A suitable set of donor lungs was being flown in from Louisiana.

"Everybody said that my transplant being on December 17th was the best Christmas present I could get. As soon as I got the call, I had so long to get to the hospital before the organ was no longer viable" recounted Wilkins.

Wilkins' surgery at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis was a success, and she spent several weeks recuperating in the hospital. Before her surgery, her lung fuction was around 21% of a normal person's lung function, at her last lung function test, her lungs were operating at 95%. Wilkins says that for the first time, she actually learned what it was like to breathe.

"I was never able to be very athletic, I was never able to have much stamina--ever, in my life. In the past 35 years. Since my lung transplant, I can exercise for long periods of time, I can function normally without getting worn down. It's like night and day" Wilkins said.

The ability to breathe wasn't the only positive for Wilkins. Now, Wilkins' daughter, Elaina, will get to know her mother in a new light. For nearly Elaina's entire life, Wilkins was on oxygen and struggling to maintain adequate health. With her mothers new lungs, Elaina will be able to fully enjoy her childhood, and Wilkins, her motherhood.

According to Wilkins, Elaina showed incredible courage and understanding in the face of her mothers poor health and subsequent surgery.

"It's really cute when a toddler says 'Can we take your new lungs home with us?' Thats what she said when she was visiting me after the transplant, and we're like 'Yes we can, yes we can'" said Wilkins.

With her new lungs, Wilkins has a much brighter future with her family, and credits her recovery to the support of her daughter and husband, Nathan. Wilkins, however, says that none of it would have been possible without her cousin, Nichole Hardcastle. Hardcastle, originally of Salem, passed away from the disease in late 2011, but it was because of her diagnosis that Wilkins was ever diagnosed in the first place. The Nichole Hardcastle Foundation now raises money to combat Cystic Fibrosis through fundraising efforts throughout Southern Illinois.

Wilkins says she is forever grateful to her organ donor for giving her more time with her family. She says that organ donation saved her life and she ecourages others to do the same. 

This Mothers Day, Brandi Wilkins has a lot to celebrate. A promotion, a loving family, and the ability to just take a deep breath--all with the knowledge that there will be plenty more Mothers Days to come.

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