TAMPA — Samantha Peterson had never taken a comfortable breath. Now she had two new lungs that worked perfectly, and it scared her to death.
She lay in the intensive care unit at Tampa General Hospital, watching monitors, listening to beeps and buzzes, unable to sleep.
"I was afraid," she said Monday. "I couldn't feel anything."
For the first time in her 18 years, the air that filled her lungs didn't hurt. She didn't feel like she was drowning. It was so new, so strange, that she feared something was wrong.
Three nights later, she slept like a baby. And Monday afternoon, after 102 days in the hospital, Samantha enjoyed a long, hot shower and held still while her big sister, Meghan, fixed her hair.
It was time to go home. Nurses and doctors stopped by to celebrate. The lungs worked great, but her heart was still broken.
"I want to go to the beach and watch the sunset," she said, choking back tears. "That was my mom's favorite place."
Eileen Peterson had always been Samantha's nurse, through 18 years of agonizing treatments for cystic fibrosis. In November, Samantha's liver and kidneys shut down, and she fell into a coma.
She was still unconscious and near death when Eileen, exhausted, left the hospital on Jan. 2. She drove to her St. Petersburg home, stretched out on a couch — and died of a heart attack. She was 52.
In the months ahead, Samantha will live with Susanne Gaskins, a registered nurse at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and a friend of Eileen's.
"She's like one of my own," Gaskins said. "Everyone falls in love with Samantha. We'll provide a pit stop for her until her dad can move closer."
(Sam Peterson works on turbines and other heavy equipment and lives in Homosassa. He has been unable to work for the last three months, spending almost every day at the hospital.)
Samantha hopes another man in her life moves closer soon — Brian Jenkins, her first and only boyfriend. They met last year on a Web site for cystic fibrosis patients.
Brian, 25, of West Palm Beach received a double lung transplant eight years ago. In November, his lungs failed him and doctors flew him to St. Louis, where he had the transplant. Samantha and her father drove up to visit him.
Shortly after they returned, she was stricken. In December, Brian was approved for a second transplant. He and his mother rented an apartment in St. Louis and await a call, but now it appears he may wait in Tampa.
"I want to be closer to Samantha," Brian said Monday. "Our doctors are talking, and we think it will happen."
Dr. Tarik Haddad, one of Samantha's pulmonologists, is amazed that Samantha is doing so well. "She was on dialysis when she arrived," he said. "She had multi-organ failure. All bets were off."
But as his associate, Dr. Mark Rolfe, added, "She's a tough one. She's a fighter. And I'll tell you this: By summer, you won't even recognize her. She'll be running and eating bratwurst like the rest of them."
Rolfe has a party for his transplant patients at Christmas and another in the summer, and takes pride in doing the cooking. "It's a great reward to see their progress," he said.
"I am so grateful to be alive," Samantha said. "There are so many people to thank."
About 900 cystic fibrosis patients receive lung transplants each year, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Fifty percent are alive after five years. Dr. Rolfe says medical advances improve the odds every year.
"I don't know if Samantha will be an old lady," he said, "but she'll definitely now have a better quality of life."
Bill Stevens is the Times North Suncoast editor. He can be reached at (727) 869-6250 or [email protected]