Six Nations woman finally home after second lung transplant

SIX NATIONS – Jessica Henhawk celebrated her birthday last week at home.

Jessica, from Six Nations, has been on the mend since May 10 after undergoing eight to 10 hours of surgery for a second lung transplant. In August Jessica was deemed healthy enough to be given a day pass so she could leave Toronto General Hospital and celebrate her 40th birthday with her family and friends on September 2.

“I’m feeling awesome and positive. I [couldn’t] wait to get home,” said Jessica. “I just want to get back to the routine, like go to my mom’s house and have tea or have a hot dog off the barbecue.”

The road that brought Jessica back to Six for a birthday celebration was long and paved with difficulties. After the surgery, unexpected health complications and financial roadblocks left Jessica and her family to the wind.

“After the lung surgery, I was back in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) but I was standing and walking around with a walker after about three days. I got discharged from ICU down to the Acute Care Unit (ACU) and I was there for a week at least and then my oxygen levels started to fall.” Jessica explains, “I was told by the nurses that they didn’t know what to do because at that time they didn’t know my lung was collapsing.”

After that Jessica was intubated at her bedside and taken back to the ICU where she later woke up.

“When I woke up I was like, ‘What’s going on?’” she said. “I had tubes in my mouth and I couldn’t talk and I was there for about a week before they sent me back to ACU and was there for about a week and finally made it down to the ward floor.”

“After spending time in the ward floor, they told me they wanted to take me back to the ICU for this ‘breathing cycle’ I’m in, which I didn’t know what that meant,” said Jessica. “My mom was on her way back to Toronto at that point so I told them to wait for my mom before they took me and when she arrived we went back to ICU where they intubated me again. The tube that they use to put in your throat is kind of rippled, so what happened was when they put that tube into my throat I had ulcers that nobody knew about in my esophagus so when the tube was being inserted the ripples on it irritated the ulcers and opened them up and later I started to bleed internally.”

“The doctors couldn’t stop the bleeding and found out that where the ulcers were, the skin was eroded and it wasn’t going to fix itself,” she explains. “It was life or death — the doctors said the procedure that they had to perform only had a 40 per cent chance of success and they did it because that’s all they could do and after four units of blood they pulled it off.”

Although that post-operation procedure was successful, Jessica found herself faced with yet another complication.

“After the second ICU, that’s when all my muscles went, everything was gone I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t lift my arms up, it was just nothing,” said Jessica. “So, they [had] me sit up and do exercises, it was hard but I made it back down to ACU and then back down to the ward floor.”

“I’ve been on a liquid diet and haven’t really eaten since May 20 so I’ve been starving,” she explains. “All the protein feeds they had me on made me sick but I needed to keep taking it to keep what was left of my muscles, so they had to lower the protein dosage and they started giving me calorie supplements.”

Jessica undergoes physiotherapy for 20 minutes every day and is on the wait list for the rehabilitation centre.

“When I go to the rehab centre I could be there for three weeks or six months depending on progress,” explained Jessica. “I’m hoping not six months, I’m aiming for the least amount of time.”

Though Jessica was faced with life or death she continued to fight and not give up knowing her family and community were doing the same thing. It has been about seven months since Jessica first went into the hospital for the second time to have her lungs transplanted and countless people have been working to raise not only money for her and her family, but to raise awareness about the struggles going on in the community.

From Facebook groups to Go Fund Me campaigns to personal donations and even a radio spot that allowed her to share her story, Jessica has received nothing but support to help her while she fights to regain her health.

Jessica, having gone through this before, knows what to anticipate as the rehabilitation starts to pay off and as the various side effects of post operation medication sink in.

“Since this isn’t my first time having my lungs transplanted I kind of know what to expect and it doesn’t scare me,” said Jessica. “Like I know what effects each medication will have and how hard it actually is to recover and I’m just prepared to do what I have to do to get better.”

What Jessica wants people to know is that they are not alone when having to deal with the whole umbrella of situations that is having transplant surgery. She is starting to put together a package of materials outlining where all possible resources are and how to go about accessing them.

“I remember the first time we came her for the first operation and we had no idea what to do or where to go because we were on our own pretty much,” said Jessica. “Having gone through this before we’ve been able to use our past experience to help us get assistance quicker and easier and we want to be able to share all this information with anyone who can use it.”

Jessica’s strength, determination and an exceptional sense of humor has made her a symbol of hope for the community that surrounds her. Although she still has many more battles to face, we can rest assured that she will not stop fighting until she has nothing left to fight for.

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