Beating the odds

Keeping a fighting spirit amidst possible lung and heart transplants

by Lauren H. Dowdle
photos courtesy of Christy Turnnipseed

To say Christy Turnipseed’s life has been full of twists and turns is an understatement, considering she’s currently facing a possible double lung and heart transplant. But through it all, this Homewood native hasn’t lost her positivity and drive.

Her medical journey began 27 years ago on Christmas Eve. The then-9-year-old Turnipseed was diagnosed with pneumococcal pneumonia and put on a ventilator. Her parents were told she probably wouldn’t make it, but after discussions, her doctors decided to try an experimental treatment that was mainly used on newborns.

She started to improve with the treatment, but her organs began to fail when taken off of it. So, her doctors tried another experimental treatment, and following 94 days in the PICU, Turnipseed was moved to a room to start her recovery.

After nearly four months in the hospital, she was able to come home. She had to learn to walk again, but through hard work and physical therapy, she returned to a somewhat normal life. “I was able to keep up with school while in the hospital and was able to rejoin my original class in the fifth grade the next school year,” Turnipseed says.

But, two years later, she kept getting infections, and doctors said it was due to part of her right lung being damaged from the pneumonia. So, they performed a lobectomy of the right lower lobe of her lung.

Again, that treatment seemed to help until her senior year of high school. After multiple stays in the hospital for infections, doctors removed the right middle lobe of her lungs. Through her determination and focus on rehabilitation, Turnipseed was able to walk across the stage and graduate with her classmates.

For the next several years, she enjoyed the college life as a student at UAB, staying involved around campus and with her sorority. She studied art history and psychology and managed a local art gallery, showing Turnipseed she wanted to become an artist full time. Her pieces mostly incorporated vintage paper and glass, as well as mixed media.

Turnipseed decided to go to culinary school at Jefferson State Community College in 2018. But then last year, Turnipseed became sick with pseudomonas in her lungs, and her doctor transferred her to the cystic fibrosis team at UAB. “My lung function started to decline rapidly as well, to now having only 26-percent lung capacity where most people have 90 to 100 percent,” she says. “It was then that discussions were had about a possible double lung transplant.”

Turnipseed underwent an evaluation in January for a transplant, but when COVID hit, some of her tests had to be postponed. So, she’s not currently listed for a transplant, as she awaits kidney tests. “My condition is a little bit complicated as my heart has now shifted to my right side where my lung was and is being held by scar tissue, which makes it difficult to break free and move it to its correct position giving a lung transplant,” she says. That might mean she will have to receive a double lung and heart transplant. However, her heart is still healthy, making it possible for her to donate it — meaning she would be a living heart donor. “Most people can’t say that, and I find it very cool,” she says. “I will be receiving life but also giving it, and that mentally helps me in this process.”

Throw in a global pandemic, and that has made the past few months more difficult. “To know that there is a virus out there that could kill me is very scary to think about,” Turnipseed says. “I am constantly quarantined to keep myself healthy and to not expose myself to anyone that could possibly give me this virus because that would be it for me.”

While it’s difficult for anyone to stay positive during the current pandemic, Turnipseed said her faith and family have helped her through this journey. Another motivator has been remembering her childhood friend, Sheena Ayers, who had cystic fibrosis. “As I was healthy, I saw her go through her treatments and hospital stays not knowing that one day I would be in her place going through the same thing. Unfortunately, she passed away years ago, but her fight and her smile keep reminding me to keep fighting,” Turnipseed says. “I have always been a fighter after what I have been through, and I plan to keep fighting. She is a reminder to me always to keep doing that.”

For others dealing with chronic illnesses, Turnipseed wants them to know they aren’t alone. “There are others that feel exactly like you do, and we can all help each other get through this together,” she says. Supporting her community seems to be second nature to her. As an artist, Turnipseed got involved with several local art festivals, including Magic City Art Connection, Birmingham Artwalk, and Moss Rock Festival. 

Her passion for the arts extended into her volunteer work, as well. She was one of the main people involved with starting the Alabama Theatre Junior Board, which is now with the Lyric Theatre. Turnipseed also volunteered with the Sidewalk Film Festival and was a screener for the shorts programming. “It’s one of my favorite events of the year in Birmingham, and now with the new cinema, we can really expand our programming to all year instead of just a festival,” Turnipseed says. “Obviously, I love the arts and the arts communities in Birmingham, and I have a continued love and passion to help these organizations thrive as much as possible.”

She says she’s ready to get back to working with these organizations and her friends when COVID allows. “I miss being involved in art festivals because we are like family,” Turnipseed says. “The people that help organize and my artist friends look forward to being with one another each year.”

There are plenty of things still up in the air, from her tests and possible transplant to the virus and its effects. But after all of the curveballs life has thrown at Turnipseed, it’s fair to say she’s ready for just about anything.

To follow Turnipseed’s journey, find her on Twitter and Instagram at @Cturnip.

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