Christina H

Christina H., CT

In four years, two lung diseases took the lives of my husband and my sister - Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis and Stage 4 Lung Cancer.

My husband, Peter S., was a father, husband, uncle, brother, and friend. Adored by his family and his community, he loved to cook – spicy Szechuan foods especially! – and bake cookies with his two daughters at Christmas time. He loved warm weather and teaching his daughters how to take on the waves on vacations in Florida and Cape Cod. As a self-employed home improvement contractor, his customers loved him for his attention to detail and the care he took in his work. He treated every customer’s home like it was his own and made their improvement project dreams come to life. A smoker from age 12 to 24, Peter knew he would need to live a clean and healthy lifestyle to make up for his poorer choices as a younger man. He played competitive volleyball in his 30’s and 40’s and became a vegan at age 60 after being diagnosed with heart disease. Three years later in 2012, the terminal diagnosis was delivered, and Peter died less than three years later, at age 66, from oxygen deprivation caused by scarring of the tissues in his lungs. As Peter’s wife of 23 years, I was robbed of the chance to grow old with him, and our daughters were robbed of the man who would walk them down the aisle, witness their many accomplishments like buying their first home or having his grandchildren.   

My sister, Maria M., was my Irish twin - just 11 months older than me. She was my other half, my best friend, my partner in crime, the one who made me laugh, and made everything better. Maria was a favorite aunt to my daughters, a wife, a sister to my brothers and me, a daughter, and perhaps most importantly, a preschool teacher of autistic children – a life-long passion whose work was nowhere near done. Maria was a bright light, determined to positively impact those around her with her joy, her blue eyes, and her brilliant smile.  

I recall a conversation with Maria in February of 2018. She lived in New Hampshire, but we spoke on the phone or texted almost every day. She had a cough that had bothered her since mid-January but considered it a mid-winter cold that would subside as the warm weather took hold. Besides, being around preschoolers every day, it was par for the course to feel under the weather and have every illness that they had, so she was unalarmed by her lingering symptoms. After another month or so, and two visits to the doctor later, they finally diagnosed her with pneumonia. At least there was a diagnosis that would be helped with a prescription, and she would begin to feel better. But a follow-up visit to the doctor gave a different kind of bad news – Stage 4 Lung Cancer. This was a shock. Maria was a non-smoker, a healthy 54-year-old. How can a person be diagnosed with Stage 4 when symptoms appeared just a couple of months prior? What happened to Stages 1, 2, and 3? This felt impossible and irreconcilable. Fast forward to August 2019, Maria died 4 days before my (second) wedding, and four months before her 56th birthday.

With the devasting diagnoses of both Peter and Maria, came an even greater zest for life and living each day as if it were the last. Peter and I enjoyed one of the best years of our marriage in his last year. We took day trips (with plenty of extra oxygen tanks!) – and just tried to cherish each other’s company. We talked, cried, laughed, and planned. He shared what he wanted for me in life, and I shared how lucky I was to be his partner. I witnessed how he approached the end of his life with grace and dignity, a lesson and legacy I strive to emulate every day.

Up until the last week of her life, Maria continued to bring people together by insisting on a family vacation in Maine where she ate lobster and soaked up the sun in a wheelchair meant to navigate sandy beaches. Her spirit lives on in me as I share her story and keep her memory alive with laughter and a smile!

As a result of Peter and Maria’s stories, I fundraise for the American Lung Association by participating in the annual Fight for Air Climb in Hartford, CT. I will continue to share their stories of devastation and perseverance, knowing that until there are known causes and cures, our work is not done.  

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