“The Breath of Life,” Ensign, Oct. 2006, 20–23
Twenty-four-year-old Jennifer Sabin Sattley looks and acts like a typical young lady. A faithful Latter-day Saint and full of enthusiasm, she recently graduated from college with a degree in interior design. On May 26, 2006, she married Patrick Sattley in the San Diego California Temple. Yet Jenny is anything but typical. She is, in fact, the recipient of a double-lung transplant from living donors, and her story is a chronicle of courage, faith, and Christlike love.
Jenny is the fourth of five children born to Gary and Valerie Sabin of Poway, California. They were high school acquaintances, but it was after each had completed a full-time mission that their life paths merged and they were married. A daughter, Kimberly, was born, and then a son, Justin. When Justin was a few months old, Gary and Valerie became concerned about some unusual symptoms he exhibited. To their dismay, Justin was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease affecting approximately 30,000 children and adults in the United States. Because of the damage to the lungs and other organs, most sufferers do not reach the age of 30.
Though devastated by Justin’s diagnosis, the Sabins devoted themselves to learning all they could. Gary eventually served as president of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and has been responsible for raising millions of dollars toward research. Valerie learned to administer the endless round of treatments that take from two to four hours each day. The Sabins had three more children: Spencer, Jennifer, and Bryan. Spencer was spared the disease, but both Jennifer and Bryan (now 16 years old with a milder form of the disease) were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
The Sabins lived in constant expectation of a cure that would save their children. A lung transplant offered a chance to extend life, but Justin’s already weakened body succumbed before he was able to undergo the operation. On April 22, 1998, Justin died at home at the age of 19. A bright, spiritual, positive young man with a sense of humor, Justin was serving a mission at the San Diego California Temple when he died. He was deeply mourned by family and friends.
Just one year later, Jenny caught a cold that developed into a dangerous bacterial infection. With deepening dread, the Sabins watched as Jennifer’s health began to decline, following the same pattern as her older brother.
There was one bright ray of hope on the horizon for Jenny, a new procedure called a partial lobe transplant, wherein two living donors each offer part of a lung. Lungs are made up of a total of five lobes, three on the right side and two under the heart. Doctors found that one lobe from a larger, healthy individual can be substituted for the damaged lung of a cystic fibrosis sufferer. Dr. Vaughn Starnes, who pioneered this surgery at Stanford Medical Center in northern California, agreed to try the procedure on Jenny if appropriate donors could be found.
As Jennifer’s condition grew more critical, she gasped and coughed continually. On oxygen 24 hours a day, she was literally starving for air. The Sabin family underwent testing to determine who could donate a lobe to Jenny, but no family members had the needed qualifications. Quietly, word went out to family and friends that donors were needed. Within days more than 30 friends and acquaintances, mostly members of the Poway California Stake where the Sabins have lived for 20 years, volunteered to be tested. At the hospital the donor coordinators were shocked at the response.
“They had never seen anything like it,” Valerie remembers. “There were so many volunteers and the procedure was so difficult.”
Donor Jim Davies, a member of Jenny’s ward, was on the way home from church when his wife, Becky, mentioned that Jenny needed a transplant. Jim recalls, “She told me that the donor had to have O-positive blood and big, healthy lungs. I raised my hand and said, ‘That sounds like me.’”
Becky felt strongly that their family should step forward to help. “I didn’t worry about it for a minute,” says Becky, although she knew that Jim, an ophthalmic surgeon, would face weeks of missed work and possible long-term repercussions. Jim called the Sabins that day and volunteered, but they had three donors already.
“I went ahead and took the required tests and faxed a copy of them to Gary, just in case,” said Jim.
Donor Graham Bullick, Jenny’s bishop, had just returned from a trip when he heard of Jenny’s worsening condition. He went to his wife, Debbie, and told her he wanted to volunteer.
“I thought long and hard about it,” says Debbie. “I had so many questions and concerns, but every time I prayed about it I felt an overwhelming sense of peace.”
Even though the Sabins had other volunteers, Bishop Bullick felt strongly that he would be one of the final donors and began to prepare. Then, with just a few days until the scheduled surgery, all three of the previously designated donors were found to have obstructions or asthmatic conditions that made them ineligible to donate.
“Yet here were Jim and Graham, ready and waiting,” recalls Jenny’s mother, “and we were able to go ahead.”
The night before Jennifer left for the hospital, the Sabins invited the Davies and the Bullick families over to give Jennifer a blessing. “I hadn’t seen Jennifer for some time,” recalls Debbie Bullick, “and I was unprepared for how ill she had become. She came into the room, barely able to walk, pulling her IV and oxygen cart with her. She was just a little skeleton of a girl.”
Gary Sabin, assisted by Jim and Graham, gave Jennifer a blessing, and then each of the donors received a blessing. “I don’t know how you really describe the feeling of the powers of heaven that we felt in that room,” Debbie continues. “To see those men bless Jenny and then bless each other. It was a picture that will forever stay in my mind.”
On Sunday the members of the Poway stake fasted and were invited to close the fast at a special prayer meeting that evening. “A very sweet unity, a sense of common purpose and reliance on divine power, seemed to fill each heart,” recalls stake president David Clark. “There was a deep yearning for Jennifer’s well-being and a profound feeling that the Lord’s hand was in the events that were unfolding.”
On Monday, November 29, 1999, a weak but excited Jennifer went into surgery. Gary recalls, “She told me not to be sad, because she would either wake up with new lungs or wake up in a better place. Then she said, ‘Either way I’ll be great.’”
Bishop Bullick donated one lobe from his left lung, and Brother Davies, one lobe from his right lung. Meanwhile, the doctors removed both of Jenny’s lungs, which turned out to be so damaged and scarred that they had been functioning at less than 9 percent of their capacity. Dr. Starnes later expressed disbelief that she was still alive. The team of surgeons then inserted the two new healthy lobes into Jenny’s chest.
After several days of recovery, donors Jim and Graham were released from the hospital and went directly to visit Jenny. Graham Bullick recalls with a smile, “There is one moment in my life that will stay just crystal clear, and that is the moment that we walked into the hospital room to see Jenny after the surgery.”
Jim Davies agrees: “Looking through the glass at Jennifer, smiling and sitting up in a chair—well, it was an unbelievable feeling.”
“I wasn’t prepared for how we would feel,” Becky Davies adds. “The Spirit was so powerful.”
“We all just wept,” Debbie Bullick says, “for we knew we were standing on holy ground.”
In an e-mail to family and friends, Jenny’s brother Spencer wrote: “The nurses brought up Jennifer’s latest X-ray of her lungs on a computer monitor and the donors got pictures, each of them pointing to their lobe on the screen. They were able to see how great their lobes fit Jennifer and how healthy they are. Of course, it was emotional.”
For nearly a week Jennifer’s system struggled to accept the foreign tissue that had been grafted into her body. There were many ups and downs, but finally the time came when doctors removed the breathing tube, allowing her to breathe on her own for the first time.
Later, Jennifer recorded the experience in her journal: “Mom and Dad came in the room, and Mom asked me how it felt. I took a deep breath, something I hadn’t been able to do in a long, long time, and began weeping. I was crying, not so much because of what it felt like right then, but because of the complete realization of what that feeling meant. It meant that cystic fibrosis was forever gone from my new lungs and that I was going to live. I simply felt relieved, grateful and incredibly, incredibly overcome with joy. As I began to cry, so did everyone else—my family and the entire medical staff.”
Today, nearly seven years later, Jennifer is full of health and vitality.
Both Jim Davies and Graham Bullick feel that they gained more than they gave. Jim says, “I’ve heard it said before that only a life lived for others is a life worth living, and I really believe that is true.”
Bishop Bullick agrees, “If you need or desire a tremendous purpose for your life, an opportunity to feel like you’ve really contributed to life, take it, because there is really no way to describe the feeling that you have.”
Jennifer recently spoke at a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis and paid tribute to these two members of her ward family: “My donors saved my life; they embody the true definition of heroes. Every joy I experience in this life, every new discovery, every smile, every hope for the future, simply every moment, I owe to them. I am forever indebted, forever grateful, forever humbled, forever in awe, and forever inspired by their amazing sacrifice.”
“When we were baptized, we moved from the world into the kingdom of God. … We all belong to a community of Saints, we all need each other, and we are all working toward the same goal. … The opportunities we all have for caring and fellowshipping in the ward are boundless if we are willing to give of ourselves in love and service.”
Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Belonging to a Ward Family,” Ensign, Mar. 1996, 15–16.