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Posted: May 29, 2009 12:30 a.m.

‘I want to breathe on my own’

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Fighting for breath: Tawana Bradley, right, has to wear an oxygen tank at all times in order to breathe through the damage done to her lungs by Pulmonary Sarcoidosis. She says that her 12 year-old son, Jamal, left, and her faith give her the stren...

What is the one thing you wish you could do more than anything else?  Thirty nine year- old, single mom Tawana Bradley simply answers: "I want to breathe on my own"

In 2003, a chest x-ray revealed that Tawana Bradley had sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease. A non smoker with no family history of lung problems, she experienced shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss and the inability to keep anything on her stomach. Bradley was admitted to the hospital, received treatment and over a period of time and seemed to improve.

However, in 2008, her oxygen level dropped one day while at work and she immediately drove herself to the hospital. Since that day, Bradley relies on the help of an oxygen tank due to damaged tissues in her lungs.

According to the American Lung Association, sarcoidosis (sar-koy-DO-sis) is a disease that causes small areas of inflammation of the body’s tissues. Sarcoidosis can attack any organ and always affects more than one of the body’s systems. However, more than 90 percent of patients with sarcoidosis will have lung involvement. When scarring occurs in the lungs, the lungs’ tiny air sacs are replaced by fibrotic tissue that is stiff, thicker than the normal lung tissue and cannot absorb oxygen. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of people with pulmonary sarcoidosis end up with permanent lung damage. Pulmonary sarcoidosis can cause loss of lung volume, which is the amount of air the lungs can hold, and it can cause abnormal lung stiffness.

As in Bradley’s case, symptoms of Pulmonary Sarcoidosis may include a dry cough, shortness of breath or mild chest pain. Prevalence estimates in the United States range from less than 1 to 40 cases per 100,000 population. However, both gender and ethnicity may impact disease risk; the age-adjusted annual incidence rate is higher for blacks (35.5 per 100,000) than whites (10.9 per 100,000). Women also have higher observed rates compared to men.

In December 2004, NFL great Reggie White died at age 43, followed by comedian and actor Bernie Mac in 2008; Medical experts believe sarcoidosis contributed to their deaths. Basketball legend Bill Russell and his daughter Karen Russell are both battling the mysterious disease.

A 1988 graduate of Newton County High School, Bradley has been employed by the United States Postal Service in Covington for the past 12 years as a mail carrier. Twelve years prior, she worked as a forklift driver for Marshall Distribution Center in Decatur.

Awaiting a lung transplant, Bradley has learned what she can and can’t do. Things we take for granted, for example going up and down stairs, physical activity or simply getting in and out of the shower, cause her to get dizzy and she has to stop for minutes to catch her breath.

"When you get sick, it is like your whole life is changed; you get to thinking about the things that you can’t do any more," she said. "Sometimes when I am at home, I think about the transplant and if everything is going to be all right. All kind of thoughts will be going through my mind. I prayed about it and gave it to God and I know he is going to take care of it."

Twelve year-old son Jamal who remembers the days when his mom played outside with him asks, "Mom, when will you get better?"

She answers with hope, "You are going to have to help pray for mom."

A member of New Hope Baptist Church for the past 18 years and president of the Usher Board, Bradley says that her faith has sustained her. Pastors Harold Miller Jr. and Margie Miller have supported Bradley by donating and setting up her Web site, along with other members who have helped her keep bills current, provide food and raise money at Christmas. The church is planning a walk-a-thon later in June.

Bradley’s doctors explained the importance of having a strong support team that will be there for her now and when she comes home. She signed up for a mentor, a former lung transplant patient, to call her periodically.

She leans on Jennifer Banks, her best friend since the sixth grade, who takes off work to go with her to the doctor.

"I don’t just consider her my friend, I consider her my sister," said Banks as she recalls all the times they have been there for each other. "We have weathered many storms during the course of our lives and this one is no different. This storm will not break our spirit. God has dealt each one a measure of faith. I know that our faith will get us through the storm. I have to be strong when Tawana gets weak, because she is my friend, my sister, an angel on earth."

Bradley expressed her gratitude for her supervisors, Renee Mills and Trina Anderson, who have been supportive by asking employees to donate annual leave to Bradley since she has exhausted her sick and annual leave. Her co-workers are sponsoring a yard sale event at Grove Baptist Church, 10728 Flat Shoals Road in Covington, on June 13 from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. with a rain date of June 20. An account has been set up at Wachovia Bank for those wanting to make donations to help with upcoming medical expenses.

Bradley signed up for disability insurance at work in February 2008, but her claim was denied as a pre-existing condition. She has since applied for disability through Social Security and will begin receiving payments in June. According to Bradley, her food stamps assistance expired this month which added to her difficulties. She and her son moved home with her parents, Mary and Charles Peters.

In April, Bradley began the evaluation and testing at Emory Hospital. Every Tuesday her doctors review her progress and determine if more tests are needed. The wait for a lung transplant can range from two weeks to a year. With her current weight of 175 pounds, Bradley is watching what she eats in order to weigh in between 101 and 162 at the time of the transplant.

Bradley’s surgery will last six to eight hours and she will remain in ICU for two to three weeks, depending how her body reacts to the new lung. After an additional four to six weeks at the hospital, she will transfer to the Mason Transplant Guest House at Emory University, which temporarily houses organ transplant candidates, recipients, living donors and their families.

Bradley needs $5,000 for co-pay, $300 for deductible, $1,600 for the Mason House and monies to cover post surgery medications. Her doctors told her she will take at least 15 pills each day for the rest of her life. She may return to work, if her strength permits.

Bradley declared that she isn’t going to let the illness lower her spirits.

"I’m going to make it because I have that little boy and he needs Mommy. And Mommy’s going to be here," she said with confidence.

For more information, visit www.tawanabradley.com.

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