A Letter To My Donor: A Coach's Journey With Cystic Fibrosis

A coach at Iona Prep since 1988, Jerry Cahill has produced some of the top Vaulters in the state for years. And at the same time, he has been battling with Cystic Fibrosis. Since being diagnosed at age 11, Cahill has battled the disease with an active lifestyle. Contesting two NYC Marathons, as well as an equal many half-Iron Mans, many attribute his longevity to his active lifestyle.

However, in 2012, Cahill's lung capacity had reached as low as 19 percent. He required a double lung transplant at Columbia University Medical Center. The operation was a success.

Six years later, and Cahill's lifestyle hasn't slowed down. The coaching hasn't either. Since 2011, he's had five boys over 15-foot-0 in the Vault at Iona Prep, in addition to work with athletes outside the school. This year, Louis Logsdail cleared the height at sectionals to join the club.

On the six-year anniversary of his transplant, Jerry Cahill wrote an open letter to his donor on his blog.  We've reposted it below.


You can hear more about Jerry from his blog, or catch the documentary Up For Air in the link above.

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Six years ago, on April 18, 2012, I received the ultimate gift -- a healthy set of lungs.   

This is my transplant story and finally, an open letter to my donor Chris who gave me a second chance at life. 

On April 17 I was called to Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) in New York City. They had a perfect set of lungs on paper for me and simultaneously while I was on my way in, a team went to harvest and evaluate these lungs, which were located out of state. It's a bit of coordination for the doctors to determine the health of the lungs. Were they damaged? Were there contusions or other imperfections? Were these lungs meant for me? The team at CUMC would make the final decision on whether they were a match or not. It was the sixth time that I'd been called in for the transplant, so I wasn't getting too excited, but I also didn't let myself get too down. This time the news was good -- the transplant was a go! Before I could blink, my team began to prep me. My worn-out, diseased lungs were about to be replaced with clear, healthy lungs. My life was about to be forever changed. 

Before I went into surgery, my lung function was at a dismal 19 percent and I spent 18 hours a day pumping myself with medications and intravenous antibiotics to stay alive. This wasn't me. I was a coach, an athlete, and an advocate for living a healthy life with cystic fibrosis. This wasn't healthy! My quality of life was non-existent, and quite frankly, I was embarrassed each time I struggled to walk up a flight of stairs.  

As I was wheeled into the operating room, I remember saying to my family, "Go into the waiting room and wait. I'll see you later." What was I thinking?   

When I woke up I truly was a changed man. It was a foreign feeling for me to have clear lungs and when I took my first breaths I told my surgeon, "These lungs are too big -- I think you stuffed them in." This wasn't a joke; I was being serious. I was grateful and knew this wouldn't just be a second chance at life for me, but for my donor Chris. We were in this together now.  

The last six years have been quite a journey -- and that's very much how I view life -- as a journey. I've written letters to my donor's family each year, but they haven't responded yet. I wholeheartedly respect their decision, but I felt strongly compelled to write an open letter to this amazing man Chris, who saved my life. 


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Dear Chris, 

There really are no words that can possibly describe how I feel about the unconditional act of kindness and love from you and your family. Every day I am thankful for the gift of life you gave me, and I truly try my best to honor you in everything I do.  

I struggle with the sadness that you had to leave your family and friends behind so I could live, but I promise you I am trying hard to be the best person I can be and I hope I'm making you proud and giving you some laughs along the way.  

It is because of YOU that I'm able to live onward and forward in life. I can tell you some things I've been doing but, since we are now one, I guess you might already know. I truly hope you're enjoying our hectic life -- I'm doing my best to live each day for both of us.  

I feel lucky in that I have a family who has always been and continues to be very supportive, caring, and loving. I come from a big Irish family, so as you can imagine, sarcasm's a part of daily conversations and I wouldn't have it any other way. My mom, who's now 86 years old, still treats me like I'm a 12-year-old, but hey, that's what moms are supposed to do. I often think about your family and if you too had a mom who didn't realize you were a grown man! But, as you can imagine, she's been a pillar of strength during all of this and still cracks the whip when I need a kick in the pants. Chris, she considers you her seventh child and she truly loves you as if you were one of her own. So, whether you like it or not, if you weren't already Irish, you are now! 

Chris, it's only because of you that my mother still gets to see me living, breathing, and succeeding. 

Before you and I met, I was a competitive pole vaulter from the time I was a teenager until I was an adult. I just couldn't quit the sport entirely, so now I coach at a few schools. These student-athletes help keep our lungs young and I have to say they teach us as much about life as I hope we're teaching them. They're nothing short of awesome --  they amaze me every day and they bring so much joy and pride into my life. And, I'm sure you've noticed that a few are nationally ranked pole vaulters! 

Chris, it's only because of you that I'm still able to coach. 

When I'm not coaching, I'm volunteering as an advocate for cystic fibrosis at the Boomer Esiason Foundation. Sometimes this feels more like a full-time job, but I love it. Previously I had focused on creating programs like Team Boomer, but since I've met you, I've expanded into grant writing and developing programs like Big Air Jerry and You Cannot Fail to make real community connections and inspire those in the CF community and beyond. Oh, there's also a documentary out called, "Up for Air" and our lungs have the leading role! Boomer and my entire family at the foundation have always been and continue to support me and all these "out-of-the-box" ideas I present to them. I sometimes wonder if you too had a bit of an outrageous imagination and didn't take "no" for an answer. Together we're a force to be reckoned with! 

Chris, it's only because of you that I can still be an advocate for cystic fibrosis. 

And as you know, while your lungs are perfect, there have been some health issues post-transplant. There's been skin cancer, some rejection, and a weakened immune system to name a few, but despite all of this, I have a strong heart to fight anything that comes our way. I'll be damned if I let something like skin cancer take us down! While I despise these post-transplant issues, it sure beats the alternative.  

Chris, it's only because of you that I have the privilege to see these setbacks as a silver lining to being alive. 

Let's get personal now Chris. You've probably noticed that there are a lot of people in my life. I feel extraordinarily blessed to have friends through work, the CF community, and coaching.  And, as you can imagine OUR most important friends are everyone on the transplant team and all the great doctors at Columbia who brought us together as brothers and friends for life, on April 18, 2012. These fine men and women continue to keep us connected. However, right now, I don't have that "one" special person in my life. I probably keep myself too busy between my many doctor appointments, work, and volunteer commitments to make room for someone, but, as you can imagine, this can be lonely at times. Who's to say this won't change in the future? When I do meet the right one, it will be the only time I'll be happy to have my breath taken away! 

Chris, it's only because of you that I am still here to experience the roller coaster of life's relationships as a son, brother, uncle, friend, colleague, coach, and I hope much more to come. 

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to meet your family and the people that mattered most you, but I'm hopeful that someday I might. I want to hug them for a long time and tell them how loved you still are and how your life continues. I would tell them how blessed I am to have you with me and how I'm doing my very best to take care of us every day, twenty-four hours a day. To honor you Chris, I wear a St. Christopher medal with your name and the date of our transplant. I keep it close to my heart and our lungs. We are one.  

Chris, someday my time here on earth will be done and when I head to "the other side" my dream is for you to greet me. I'd love to sit down with you and hear all about your life, your family, and your aspirations. Absolutely nothing would give me greater joy. Until then, we'll keep doing our thing -- living, breathing and succeeding together.    

Chris, it is because of you that I will forever be connected to someone I've never had the great privilege of meeting. 

Chris, we will always be brothers in breath -- for life

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