Julie Jenkins stood against a wall near her son's bed at Tampa General Hospital. Like all visitors, she wore protective clothing. God forbid a rogue germ should sneak into Brian's new lungs. A surgical mask covered her mouth - and caught her tears. "I don't want to cry," she said. "It makes him mad. But when I think of all he has been through..." Down the hall, Samantha Peterson settled in for the night. She hadn't figured to be back in the hospital, but she had a slight fever and perhaps the beginnings of a cold. Her doctor, Mark Rolfe, isn't one to take chances. Like Brian Jenkins, she had also recently received two new lungs. Unlike Brian, she does not have her mother there. Samantha clutched a necklace her mom had given her. The words "Little Sister" dangled from the gold chain, just below the punctures from a tracheotomy. "I never take it off," she said. "I never stop thinking of my mom." Her cell phone buzzed. Brian had sent a text message - bed to bed. Her face lit up.
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Samantha and Brian were first featured in the St. Petersburg Times on Feb. 8. They had met months earlier on a Web site frequented by cystic fibrosis patients. He was 25 and lived in West Palm Beach. She was 18 and living in St. Petersburg. They had spent so much time in hospitals that neither had ever experienced true romance, but to the delight of family members on both sides, that changed.
Then, in November, Brian fell ill. The lungs that doctors had transplanted into his chest eight years earlier had become contaminated by his disease. His only chance to survive would be to get another transplant.
Samantha and her father, Sam, visited Brian two weeks before Thanksgiving. On Nov. 30, her lungs betrayed her. Samantha's organs began to fail, and she slipped into a coma at Tampa General. Her mother, Eileen, who had spent 18 years protecting her daughter and coordinating her care, went home on Jan. 2 and lay down on a couch to rest. She suffered a heart attack and died at age 52.
A few days later, Samantha awoke from her coma and couldn't understand why her mother wasn't there. Her father broke the news on Jan. 9, the day before the funeral. On Jan. 12, Samantha was put on the list for a double lung transplant. She received her new lungs on Feb. 11.
Brian, meanwhile, waited ... and waited ... at the hospital in St. Louis where he had received his first transplant. His mother took leave from her job as a data processor at a high school in West Palm Beach, and rented a house in St. Louis. Six weeks ago, Brian transferred to Tampa General, and his mom rented a house in Largo.
Finally, on Sept. 1, LifeLink found a match. Brian went into surgery with Dr. Cedric Sheffield at 10:30 p.m.; he came out at 9:30 the next morning.
Thursday afternoon, as Brian prepared for his release, Dr. Rolfe stopped by his room. He said only 10 percent of patients ever get a second transplant, largely because antirejection drugs "beat up" on the kidneys. But Brian, who worked out with weights regularly before the attack, is stronger than most patients. And after a lifetime of education, he knows all the basic rules to keep his disease in check. He will remain in the area for at least four months so Dr. Rolfe can monitor his progress.
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Samantha is living with one of her two sisters in Ruskin. When she left the hospital in March, she weighed 80 pounds and was weak and pale. Now she is up to 105 and feeling strong.
Her dad is back to work at the nuclear power plant in Crystal River. He had quit to care for Samantha, often sleeping in his truck in the hospital garage.
A few months ago, they went through some boxes that Eileen had stored. They found letters she wrote in 2005.
"She said that if she should pass away, I should keep going, and to help people in need," Samantha said. "At first I thought maybe she knew. But she would have told me. She told me everything.
"I'm much closer to my dad now. He's been amazing. I tell him mostly everything."
Samantha's relationship with Brian has cooled, though they have remained in touch online and she visited him several times after his transplant. "But things moved way too fast for me," she added. "We're just going to be good friends."
Cystic fibrosis is an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive systems of about 30,000 children and adults in the United States and 70,000 worldwide. It causes the body to produce thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs, obstructs the pancreas and stops natural enzymes from helping the body break down and absorb food. In the 1950s, few children with CF lived to attend elementary school. Many people with the disease today live into their 30s, 40s and beyond, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (www.cff.org).
-For more information about lung transplants, visit www.newlungassociates.com.
-To become a registered organ donor, you can complete a form at a driver's license office or go to lifelinkfound.org or organdonor.gov.
-For previous coverage, go to links.tampabay.com.