PALM HARBOR — The first time Samantha Peterson's lungs failed, Sam Peterson prayed harder than at any time in his 57 years. He had just lost his wife. He couldn't bear losing his "baby girl.''
Early Thursday morning, this 285-pound bear of a man gently brushed his hand against Samantha's hair as she lay in a Suncoast Hospice bed. This time there would be no transplant. The 19-year-old beauty who had shriveled to less than 80 pounds labored to breathe, unconscious in a morphine fog.
Sam talked to God again, but this time it was different. "Please,'' he whispered, "let her go.''
The gasping stopped. At 4 a.m., the St. Petersburg woman whose courageous fight with cystic fibrosis could make a Hollywood movie slipped away.
Just two years ago, Samantha found romance for the first time, in an unlikely place — cyberspace. She began chatting with Brian Jenkins on a website for people who suffer the chronic disease that clogs lungs with sticky mucus.
At 25, he had lived for eight years with transplanted lungs. They both had spent so much of their lives in hospitals, they hadn't been able to even think about a relationship. But for now, at least, they felt great.
Then in November 2008, Brian's lungs betrayed him. He went on the transplant list in St. Louis, where he had received the first pair. Samantha and Sam drove up to visit him around Thanksgiving, and when they returned home, Samantha fell ill. Her kidneys and liver shut down and she lay in a coma at Tampa General Hospital.
Her mother, Eileen, a nurse, kept a constant vigil. On Jan. 2, Eileen went to her home in St. Petersburg, exhausted and upset. She stretched out on a couch — and died. Heart disease had gone undetected. She was 52.
Sam left his job as a turbine operator at the Progress Energy nuclear plant in Crystal River and took over the vigil as the youngest of his three daughters hovered near death. He slept in a chair in her room and in the back of his truck in the parking lot. Then, just before Eileen's funeral on Jan. 10, Samantha awoke. Her dad had to break the news.
On Jan. 12, Samantha finally was considered well enough to make the transplant list. Doctors replaced her lungs on Feb. 1. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, 900 patients receive lung transplants each year and as many as 90 percent are alive a year later — 50 percent after five years. Doctors warned that the first year is critical because of rejection and infection.
Samantha seemed to thrive with her new lungs, gobbling ice cream and gaining weight. In September, she celebrated Brian's successful double lung transplant at Tampa General. He had transferred from St. Louis, in part to be closer to Samantha, but she concluded they had moved too fast in their relationship. They would be just friends.
Meanwhile, Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley, which includes 250 women dedicated to community service in the Tampa Bay area, adopted Samantha as its poster child to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Samantha danced with her dad at the gala ball at MacDill Air Force Base in January and was thrilled to learn the krewe had raised $10,000.
But she knew something was wrong. Her body began rejecting her lungs. By spring, Samantha had no intention of seeking another transplant. On March 12, she wrote this on Facebook:
"I have fought … I kept on fighting. I will always be strong, and I will always be a fighter, but I think it's time I just lay my head on a pillow, and fall asleep with no struggles, no pain, and no sorrow. This was just my temporary home, a home I don't think I'm strong enough to live in anymore."
Her friends responded, urging her to keep fighting. But on Tuesday, Sam delivered his daughter to the hospice in Palm Harbor. Her sisters, Meaghan, 24, and Chelsea, 21, joined her there, along with other transplant patients who had followed Samantha's situation.
"We had a roomful," said Sam. "Sammie was special to so many people."
Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg will handle funeral arrangements. Samantha will be cremated, her ashes mixed with her mom's.
"It's what Sammie wanted," her father said. "They'll be together again."
Bill Stevens can be reached at (727) 869-6250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.