Guest Column

Amazing Grace

By Kathleen Toomey Jabs '01G

It's a cold, wet Wednesday evening in November, and Melissa "Missy" Hofmann '03 is urging her 35-pound bulldog, Maddi, into the car so she can drive back to the UNH Field House and reprint her latest marketing plan. The dog has slobbered all over the original, and despite the fact that it is after 8 p.m., Missy is laughing. As UNH Athletics' marketing coordinator, she spends 60 to 70 hours a week trying to get people to come to games: football, basketball, gymnastics, hockey, anything on campus. She is 5'4," trim and athletic. A blond bob swings around her face and her brown eyes flash as she describes a typical day.

"I like it. The job's fun," she says. For Missy, who has cystic fibrosis (CF), fun is a priority. She says, "I always keep the disease in the back of my head. I tell myself I should do stuff that's fun now because I don't know. They're working on cures and things might change, but I don't know..." When she speaks, her voice is slightly rasping, a trademark of CF patients, though hers is not severe. She trails off and I don't ask her to finish.

Four years ago, Missy was my student in freshman composition at UNH. We've stayed in touch, and I know what she means by "things might change." The current life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis is 35 years. Missy just turned 23. At least four times a year, she travels home to Minnesota for tests and meetings with her doctors. The diagnoses determine if she returns to New Hampshire or stays in the hospital for extended treatment.

Two weeks ago, she had her best check-up in three years, one of the top three of her life, and she is cautiously upbeat. Her parents, she says, were "psyched." She doesn't know why she's improved. Since graduation in May and the end of ski team practices, she hasn't been working out as much. Her pill routine remains steady--five enzymes before each meal, three to five before every snack, and two Tums. Along with the pills, she completes ventilator treatments twice a day. She admits to being more regular with those now that school is finished.

Ventilator treatment means taking a plastic L-shaped ventilator and attaching it to a black nylon vest connected by two hoses to a 50-pound nebulizer machine. The nebulizer beats her lungs to shake loose the abnormally thick, sticky mucus caused by CF. Each morning and evening, Missy slips into the vest, fills the ventilator with a bronchosaline mist and adjusts the pressure on the nebulizer to the highest setting. The vest squeezes her torso, tightening around her chest and thumping her lungs with a steady, rhythmic pulse, 10 minutes for each of the six lung lobes. The noise sounds like an off-balance washing machine. As the vest compresses her lungs tighter and tighter, her body seems to contort. She cannot talk; she watches TV, but keeps it on closed-caption. To drown out the beating noise would require turning the volume up so loud she's afraid she might bother the neighbors.

A new nebulizer vest should be available soon. It is reported to weigh 14 pounds and can fit in a gym bag instead of the suitcase with which she now travels. "That will be awesome," Missy says. If things work out with her insurance, she hopes to have it by next summer.

She doesn't know where she'll be then or what she'll be doing. Her boss would like her to stay for at least another year; her boyfriend is going to Norfolk and wants her to move there. She shrugs. "With school, you always knew what was coming," she notes. "The next grade, the next round of classes. Now you don't know what comes next." I don't try to tell her you can't ever know; she understands that far better than I do.

Instead I listen to her chatter about the chaos in her office and her options for the future and I am inexplicably cheered. From eight years of teaching, I know I learn more from my students than they do from me, and I take away more than I can possibly give back. Still, with Missy I am awed to witness, quite simply, the grace that comes from accepting a life you can't control and then living it. I'll keep checking in.

Kathleen Toomey Jabs '01G is a writer and freelance editor. She is finishing a novel, and her stories have appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Other Voices, The GW Review and other magazines. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

blog comments powered by Disqus