HOUSTON -- At her home in southeast Houston, Crystal Johnson, 21, dreams of opening her own fashion boutique some day and writing a book about her life; a life she has an organ donor family to thank for every breath she now takes.
Johnson was 14 years old when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. But the treatable disease came with a costly side effect; eight months of chemotherapy severely damaged her lungs.
Multiple surgeries led to only one solution. She would need a double lung transplant to save her life.
"It was to the point I couldn't walk without getting out of breath. It wasn't a good feeling,” Johnson said.
"That's my baby, my friend -- everything. She's everything to me,” said her mom, Tracy Antoine.
But her mom's "everything" was fading. Johnson also came down the with H1N1 flu, making her already fragile health that much worse.
"At times, I just felt like, you know, I just wanted to give up. But I didn’t,” Johnson said.
And while waiting for a lung transplant at Houston Methodist, Crystal was given more time with the help of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. The blood directly from her heart was drawn through a catheter in her neck, oxygenated by ECMO, and returned to her heart to be pumped out to the rest of her body.
"It goes through the jugular vein and actually sits in the right side of the heart,” said Crystal’s transplant surgeon Scott A. Scheinin, M.D. at Houston Methodist. "In the past, we never would have transplanted anybody off of an ECMO because they're typically bed bound and just too sick."
By placing the catheter in her neck - versus a more common location like the femoral vein in her leg - Scheinin says Crystal was able to be up and walking through the hospital, exercising, rehabilitating, and buying herself more time.
"Her ability to do therapy and rehabilitation is really good and that's what saved her,” Scheinin said.
What eventually saved her was a double lung transplant on January 31.
"Well I think Crystal has an amazing spirit,” said Crystal’s Houston Methodist intensive care nurse, Cindy Alford. "There was this peace that came over her, and she set back in the bed and she's like, 'I got this. I got this!’”
“Her likelihood of doing well for a long time is pretty good,” Scheinin said.
What she hopes for now - in addition to running her own store and boutique some day - is to meet the donor family. At this point she has no idea who they are, but tears flow when she thinks about what she would say to them.
"I just want to thank the family for giving me life again," Johnson said. "I just want to thank them and hug them. I think about it all the time. I think about it all the time because they gave me life.”
April is National Donate Life month. Click here for more information.