Donation of lungs gives Bristol woman new life

BRISTOL — Bristol resident Tammy Shackett was once an active member of her local community, but eventually she was forced to rely on an oxygen tank to breathe due to a lifelong struggle with lung problems.

After four years of waiting for a suitable lung donor, the 52-year-old announced on March 12 that she was done.

“It’s going to come when it comes and if it doesn’t I’m just going to adapt to living on oxygen,” she recounted in an interview this week. “I wasn’t giving up on life, I was giving up on waiting.”

At 4:30 the very next morning, March 13, Shackett received the long-awaited call from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“I had to double check the caller ID to make sure it wasn’t a dream or anything,” she said. “And then they said, ‘We have lungs for you.’”

The double lung transplant surgery she underwent later that day gave her the opportunity for a new life.

Shackett’s operation was a success, and, after a few bumps in her recovery at the hospital, she announced that she was going home for rehabilitation. Shackett arrived home two and a half weeks after her surgery, and by the next morning was walking around the apartment on her own.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to rehab, I’m going home to where my family can help me.’ And I’ve been doing well ever since,” she said.

Shackett suffered from asthma, emphysema and bronchiectasis and was forced to rely on an oxygen tank and the support of her family and friends for everyday chores and activities. “I haven’t been able to do anything really for over a year. My son does the grocery shopping, and he and my husband (Ron Shackett) do laundry and the dishes,” she explained.

“I’m the driver,” her older sister, Cindy Euber, chimed in.

Now, Shackett spends much of her time caring for her grandchildren, Belle, 8, and Killian, 1. Although she has already returned to cooking and baking — usually with the help of Belle — Shackett still remains limited in what she can do because her muscles deteriorated after so many years of inactivity.

“I can’t pick up a jug of milk, which means I can’t pick up my grandson,” she explained.

Eager to start her new life, Shackett is struggling to comply with the restrictions of recovery.

“It’s stuff I’m not used to because it’s inside that’s healing. I feel good and the outside is looking good,” she said.

Her strict physical therapy program consists of leg exercises and, after her breastbone heals, will include arm exercises to improve her strength and endurance.

However, with new lungs and a new outlook, Shackett is determined to take advantage of deep breaths and pursue the active lifestyle she has been denied for so many years. Hiking, apple and blueberry picking, white-water rafting and playing with her grandkids are at the top of her list.

“I’ve never hiked up Bristol Cliffs, I’ve never hiked anywhere. I want to start and get strong enough to hike up these little hills and little mountains and work my way up,” she said.

Bristol and Addison County are rallying around Shackett to support her financial needs following the operation. Medical expenses and visits to Boston for checkups and rehabilitation — which require lodging, food and gas — need to be financed.

The community is holding two fundraisers to help Shackett and her family as she works her way toward recovery. The first is a benefit dance this Friday, June 10, from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Bristol American Legion. Then a benefit breakfast will be hosted by the Masons this Sunday, June 12, at the Bristol Libanus Lodge.

Before breathing complications destroyed her energy, Shackett was engaged with and established a strong presence in the Bristol community. She worked with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts while her two sons, Adam, 27, and Tyler, 22, were members. For almost 18 years, Shackett and her husband were involved in every aspect of the Scouts.

“If there was an activity going on, or anything, we were always there,” she said.

Cecil Foster, a member of the Libanus Lodge No. 47 F&A Masons in Bristol and a long-time friend of Shackett’s, emphasized her years of devotion and hard work for the Bristol Scouts. Foster worked as a Cubmaster for many years, relying on the help of Shackett to stay organized.

“I needed assistance, and that was Tammy,” he recalled. “It was a joke that she would hand me the agenda and I would get up and talk and read off from it and whatever it said there was pretty much what I said.

“She was the unofficial head of the pack,” he added.

Shackett also worked with the Scouts every Memorial Day, taking troops out to put flags on the veterans’ graves. “(She) rekindled the tradition … She did it for so long, it has now become an established tradition again, they’re still doing it today,” Foster said.

This is the second time this year that these communities are coming together to support lung-transplant recipients. Last November, Bristol’s Kate Heffernan sparked community interest and support after receiving a lung transplant surgery for her life-long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

Bristol has quickly become a hub for organ-donation awareness thanks to the work that Heffernan, Shackett, and their families and friends have done over the past few years. Even in her recovery, Shackett is determined to continue spreading information about the importance of organ donations.

Shackett and Heffernan will ride on a float in Bristol’s Fourth of July parade next month, decorated thanks to donations made by the Organ Donation Awareness group and featuring a list of Bristol residents who have received organ donations.

“I’ve been thinking about it for two years and now I have my lungs, and Kate has her lungs, and so we’re all excited to do this,” Shackett said. “I have a lot of help, and there are a lot of people involved.”

Editor’s note: Help support Shackett, Heffernan and organ donation this weekend by coming to either benefit event or by sending a check made out to “Libanus Lodge No. 47” with “for Tammy” on the subject line, and mail it to Libanus Lodge No. 47, P.O. Box 124, Bristol, VT  05443.

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