Allison Watson believes in living every day to the fullest. Raised in Petitcodiac, New Brunswick, she had an active childhood despite daily treatment for cystic fibrosis. In 2014, she received new lungs in Toronto. As a side effect, she was diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder. After intensive chemotherapy, she is now cancer free and is again able to physically do the things she enjoys.
Allison Watson tells her cystic fibrosis double lung transplant story in the book Transplanted (Nimbus), nominated for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. She lives in Amherst, Nova Scotia.
First of all, congratulations on your Atlantic Book Award nomination, the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. What was your reaction when you heard?
I'm thrilled to be nominated. The nominees and previous winners are outstanding books and it's an honour to be part of the list.
Please tell me about your book Transplanted. Why did you decide to write it?
Transplanted tells the story of my growing up with cystic fibrosis and subsequent double lung transplant and cancer diagnosis. I wrote it initially for myself as a way to work through the anxiety and stress I had about the transplant and recovery. It was therapeutic to review my old blog posts and talk to my family about that time in my life. I added some context with stories from my life and cancer journey to make it more of a rounder book and then pitched it to publishers.
When were you diagnosed with cystic fibrosis? Can you describe what it was like to breathe before the transplant? And after?
I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth. My older sister, Amy, also has CF so I was tested immediately.
I used oxygen for about a year and half before my surgery to help me breathe. The week before my surgery I was hospitalized and using a BiPap machine which helped me breathe at night. During the day I was on supplemental oxygen and even then, I was short of breath walking around my hospital room.
Immediately after the transplant, I'm sad to say I didn't have one of those viral moments where you watch a person taken off the ventilator and their first breath is a moment of joy. I struggled to breathe off the ventilator and it took me quite some time to adjust to my new lungs. Once I was comfortable breathing on my own, it was phenomenal. For the first time in years I could breathe comfortably in the cold air, and walk up a flight of stairs without getting short of breath.
When did it become necessary to have a double lung transplant?
My lung function had a fairly slow decline in my early 20s. My respiratory team started talking about the need for a transplant when I had several chest infections in one year that dropped my lung function below 30% (of what an average person my age would have). I was in denial at first but eventually, after a serious case of pneumonia, I agreed to start the work up process.
What is your hope for Transplanted?
I hope that people reading Transplanted understand how organ transplants save and transform people's lives. I also hope that anyone who is going through the medical system can relate to my story and perhaps see themselves in parts of it. Overall, it's a story of resilience told with humour that I think anyone can enjoy.
What has the reaction been from other people with cystic fibrosis?
I've been very supported by people from the cystic fibrosis community. While I've heard more from family and friends of those with CF, they say it has helped them greater understand what their loved one has or is going through.
What is your life like now? Is cystic fibrosis something that you can recover from? (Forgive my ignorance about this!)
I'm now five and half years post-transplant and four years post-chemo and my day to day is quite different than it was pre-transplant. Cystic fibrosis does not have a cure so while my transplanted lungs do not have CF, the rest of my body still has the disease. Apart from my digestive enzymes and vitamins, I take immunosuppressants to avoid organ rejection which makes me vulnerable to catching infections. I have to be more cautious than most about hand washing, disinfecting, and avoiding anyone with a cold.
Although I'm immunosuppressed, physically, I'm healthier than I imagined was possible before my transplant. I'm able to work (pre-pandemic), go on long hikes, and generally have energy to do the things I want to do.
Do you see yourself writing in other genres besides non-fiction?
As someone who reads a lot of romance, I would love to write a modern romance but I've discovered that writing fiction is quite different than non-fiction.
What your favourite thing about living in your part of Nova Scotia?
I love being close to both sides of the ocean. It's a quick drive to the Strait if I want a relaxing beach day and is also close to the Bay where there are some great hikes and delicious clams.
Where are your favourite places in the province to explore?
I love spending time in Halifax and camping in the Highlands of Cape Breton. I've also enjoyed backpacking around Cape Chignecto and hope to again this summer.
- Questions by Marilyn Smulders