Nearly five years ago, Maria Fernanda Garcia, age 41, began to experience an occasional problem with coughing spells.
“I went to a local clinic and the doctor told me it was an allergy or dust in the air,” she remembers. “He told me to drink hot tea and not to worry. He said many people who live here suffer from seasonal allergies. “
Maria is originally from Palmira Valle, Colombia and has lived on Hilton Head Island for the past 13 years. Because she had no health insurance, Maria tried to ignore the coughing but it got progressively worse.
“Out in public, if I went to Mass or went shopping, people would stare at me because my coughing was so constant,” she said.
In January of this year, Maria visited the Memorial Health Center emergency room in Savannah.
“X-rays showed inflammation in my lungs,” she said. “So they scheduled me for a CT scan and biopsy.”
On March 30th, Maria was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.
Pulmonary fibrosis occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. The thickened, stiff tissue makes it more difficult for the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide for the oxygen necessary for survival. Since this disease worsens over time, treatment options are very limited. A double lung transplant, which may increase the patient's survival rate if his body does not reject the organ, can cost $1 million or more.
“It is good to finally have a name for my medical condition, but doctors say their treatment options are very limited” Maria said. “Without insurance I don't see how the lung transplant could ever be possible.”
Though treatment options for pulmonary fibrosis are limited, doctors can focus their attention on palliative care, which in Maria's case include drugs which could help to limit her coughing and ease her throat pain and a portable oxygen concentrator or POC which would greatly improve her body's absorption of the life-giving gas.
Maria is petite and soft-spoken, with large brown eyes that reflect the worry this condition has brought to her life.
“It is very hard for me to do anything requiring physical exertion,” she said. “Walking or climbing steps are very difficult. My cough gets worse in the evenings so I always feel very tired. But the worst thing is the look I see in people's eyes when they hear me coughing. They think I have some kind of contagious disease that will make them sick. That makes me very sad.”
Depression and anxiety are very common among pulmonary fibrosis patients.
“I would like to find a support group or someone I could talk with” Maria said. “My father died of pulmonary fibrosis and I don't want to think about that happening to me. It's just very frustrating to suffer from a condition that seems to have no cure.”
Last month, a friend of Maria's held a fund-raising event on Hilton Head and raised a little money for Maria. If you would like to help Maria, she invites you to call her at (843) 304-1247.
“Sometimes, it helps me just to know that someone has sympathy for what I am experiencing and is willing to pray for me,” she said.