Alpha Stories

Published on Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Live life to the fullest: Advice from Mary, who does it every day!

Live life to the fullest: Advice from Mary, who does it every day!

Mary Pierce is the definition of an athlete: she’s a kayaker and a bicyclist, she lifts weights regularly, she rides her motorcycle and she works full time.

And yes, in her spare time, she’s learning to fly a powered paraglider.

For the less adventurous among us, powered paragliding amounts to hanging from a harness in mid-air with a big parachute over your head and a motor strapped to your back that spins a four-foot propeller which pushes you into the air.

It isn’t that she likes to live dangerously. It’s that she wants to live life to the fullest—one prime reason she had a double lung transplant 15 years ago. (Even today, the average survival time after lung transplant is just five years.)

Pierce was diagnosed with Alpha-1 in 1987. Six years later, she received her life-saving, life-starting transplant. Since that great day, April 3, 1993, she’s been taking advantage of everything life has to offer. “I don’t even have to stop and think about it,” she says. “Life is good and I feel good. I’ve been blessed, I’ve been extremely lucky and I’ve worked hard.”

Before the transplant, she couldn’t take more than a few steps without getting short of breath. When she awoke after her surgery, she inhaled deeply for the first time in a long time. “They took the ventilator off and I took the first deep breath I had in years and I started to cry,” she says. “I told the doctor that if that’s the only breath I get that I would be a happy camper. It just felt so good. I had no idea it should feel this good to breathe.”

Ever since, she has been taking a regimen of anti-rejection drugs to prevent her body from attacking her donated lungs. “Adults have to expect to stay on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives,” she says quite cheerfully.

Before her diagnosis, she was an accountant for an insurance subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company. She eventually went on disability for six years until she got her transplant.

The transplant, however, changed her outlook on things. Though she had spent many a good year at the company, she wanted to do more with her life: “It seemed that there was more to be done; that I might be able to make a difference and share the things I learned along the way.”

She eventually went on to compete as a cyclist in several US Transplant Games and two World Transplant Games. She won a gold medal at the World Transplant Games in England in 1995.

That’s when she decided to create Team Alpha-1, involving herself and other Alpha bike riders to promote education, awareness and early detection for Alpha-1. Team Alpha-1 encourages Alphas to make a commitment to physical fitness. The group began small, but eventually earned national media coverage when Pierce and fellow Alpha Shirley Dennis rode in the American Lung Association’s Big Ride Across America – a bike ride from Seattle, WA, to Washington, DC in just 48 days.

“John Walsh (president and CEO of the Alpha-1 Foundation) encouraged me to work with the Foundation. With a grant from Bayer (now Talecris) John hired me to work full time for the Foundation,” she says.

After that, she was an AlphaNet coordinator for more than a decade, and recently became an Alpha-1 patient advocate for Centric Health Resources. She’s still working regularly with Team Alpha-1.

In addition to exercising, she attributes her health successes to wonderful doctors who not only provided great care, but listened to her as well. Taking an active role in your own health care can lead to great things, she says: “We, as patients, and our health care providers are a team. The best results come from working together. Some providers make that a real easy thing to do, because they relish having a patient who is willing to be involved.”

She is forever grateful to the donor whose lungs gave her a new life.

“I was able to find out that she died in a car accident, and that she was the 27-year-old mother of a three-year-old,” says Pierce. “I planted a rose for her – and it’s a hearty little rose. It pretty much has to take care of itself because I’m not allowed to dig in the dirt. It has the most beautiful pink blossoms.”

Thanks to that young woman, Pierce has the ability to relish simple pleasures. “I read all the time and usually have two or three books going at once,” she says. “I love going to the movies, sometimes just to chill. I will sit on the front porch or sit on the riverbank with a book, just chill and enjoy the birds and the trees and the water going by.”

She says hard work and a great attitude is the key to living a full and happy life. “My advice to everybody is to work hard to keep the joy in your life and don’t wait for it to find you – go looking for it.”

So what does she enjoy doing most, post-transplant?

“Now – everything. Because everything feels good when you can breathe.”

If you are interested in Team Alpha-1, Go Here!

“It’s like going to a buffet. I want to try all the colors and textures and flavors. I don’t like my plate to be all the same color. It’s the same with all the other things in my life. I like the beach, I like the mountains, I like to ride my motorcycle, and I like to fly my powered paraglider.”
—Mary Pierce