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Kugluktuk woman survives double lung transplant

Millie Kuliktana was told she only had three months to live due to a rare lung condition. Now, 10 years and one double lung transplant later, she continues to stay positive into her recovery.

Millie Kuliktana, centre, is surrounded by supporters following her operation at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, January 2020.

"I have a second chance at life and I will continue to live my life to the fullest," she said.
"I have to take care of something that isn't rightfully mine," said Kuliktana in a previous interview.

She said words cannot express the gratitude her family has for the team of doctors, nurses, the donor and his/her family who helped her.

Millie is now in the process of packing her belongings at the University of Alberta hospital and is anxiously waiting to join her father, husband, children and grandchildren in Kugluktuk in April.

Kuliktana's father, Tommy Norberg, said he is very happy that she will be joining the family back home when she is ready, "It will be good to go to her house for some good meals," said Norberg. "I miss her cooking."

Kuliktana, a mother of four, a grandmother and sibling to nine other sisters, was diagnosed 10 years ago with pulmonary hypertension disorder.

This disease is a life threatening condition characterized by high blood pressure in the arteries leading to the lungs and heart. Pulmonary hypertension occurs when the arteries in the lungs become blocked or narrow, making it harder for the heart to pump blood through them. This raises blood pressure in the lungs and causes the heart to weaken, which may eventually lead to heart failure.

"It was a scary feeling knowing there is no cure but transplant alone," Kuliktana said. For 10 years she lived with a medical pump that infused medication into her body every minute. She carried around a portable oxygen tank which she named Patrick.

"Hope was the foundation of my mind, spirit and physical being," she said.

"Hope strengthened by the grandchildren whom I wasn't prepared to leave as young as I still am. Never give up hope, as that is all we have when the word terminal is added to your condition.

There were days, though, when hope was hard to come by for Kuliktana, but she knew a healthy attitude was needed to carry forward.

"Hope accompanied by the power of prayer was needed for me to move forward to challenge the terminal illness," she said.

"Of course some days I questioned my faith, but always reminded myself that was all I had besides knowledge of the science," Kuliktana said.

Kuliktana, an active member of the Kugluktuk community, received a lot of support before, during and after the operation.

Her supporters back home sent her packages of country food with fish, caribou, musk ox, seal meat and dry meat. The community also raised funds to help send her son Quentin and grandson Nolan to visit her which she said she is very grateful for.

Kuliktana's daughter Wynter, sister Edna Elias, daughter Tundra and son Shawn and friend Beverly Anablak, continuously ran errands and acted as in impromptu team of caregivers, though it was an emotional duty.

"My coping mechanisms as a caregiver was to rest and take self care and lots of crying- not holding emotions in and tried to be of moral support to Tundra and Shawn, explaining and educating them on the disease," Elias said.

On Oct. 14, 2019 she received the phone call she had been waiting for, a successful donor was found for the operation. Kuliktana posted a video on Facebook to share the news of the call.

Upon receiving the new lungs Millie was kept on life support and oxygen before she could breath on her own, as her body still needed to accept the newly donated lungs.

When she awoke, she recalls her daughter Wynter yelling out, "mom is awake!"

"To wake up from my life-changing surgery was amazing to realize I was alive and made it through what was said to be a challenging procedure based on my condition after many years of being sick, to hear the voices of my family was reassuring," said Kuliktana.

On Jan. 10, she walked out of the hospital. "I feel liberated having felt all types of feelings today," her daughter Wynter said.

"I plan to journal this energy as a constant reflection of how far hope and gratitude can lead you through life. Life is so precious and I am thankful for these moments that take me back to what's most important, to just live it, love it and feel it".