Nicole Antaya of Orange, graduated Saturday, May 18 after fighting cystic fibrosis and receiving a double lung transplant. Antaya, a Quinnipiac University senior psychology major, took part in the commencement ceremony at the People’s United Center on the York Hill Campus after spending the last six years working on a bachelor’s degree while fighting cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder marked by chronic lung infections that sharply reduce a person’s ability to breathe.
“Graduation means everything to me,” she said. “It is a time to reflect on my trials and adversities that I have fought along the way during my college career. As I walk across the graduation stage, I will carry my donor’s spirit with me and will be humbled and forever grateful for this second chance at life. I love you Jordan.”
Three years ago, just as she was getting into her studies, Antaya found herself in a life-or-death struggle. As doctors measured her lung function at a near-suffocating 18 percent, they knew time was running out. “I had six months to a year to live,” Antaya said. “I needed oxygen just to sit on the couch.”
More than that, Antaya needed a new pair of lungs. A single lung transplant wouldn’t work because a lung with cystic fibrosis would compromise the transplanted lung, she explained.
Suddenly, life became a waiting list at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. But Antaya and her family never lost hope.
Before Antaya could qualify for a transplant, she had to move to Durham with her mother and pass a battery of tests. From there, she waited for the phone call that would change her life. Finally, the call came. It was time. “The first thing I said when I woke up after the (August 2015) surgery was, ‘It’s a boy.’ I could tell right away,” Antaya said.
She was right. A 17-year-old boy named Jordan had died in a car accident, and his parents had donated his lungs.
But Antaya still had a chart full of issues after spending a month in intensive care. “You can imagine all the muscle mass I had lost. I had to learn how to walk again,” Antaya said. “But I was determined to get back to normal.
She takes dozens of pills every day to prevent her body from rejecting her new lungs, but nothing ever discouraged her from completing her degree. She is grateful for the help of Professor Anne O’Donnell Eisbach, chair of the psychology department, and several other psychology professors, including her academic adviser Penny Leisring; Gary Giumetti, the faculty adviser for the Psi Chi psychology honor society; and Thomas Pruzinsky.
“Professor Pruzinsky was always willing to work with me. It was never, ‘Oh, you’re running behind.’ His support really gave me the stamina to plow through and finish my work,” Antaya said. “I can’t speak highly enough of him. I’ve never met someone with such a high level of emotional intelligence.”
Antaya found similar support and compassion from Eisbach and her other professors. “Professor Eisbach let me take my thesis class a semester early. People usually take it in the spring,” Antaya said. “The psychology department has been incredible with accommodations and helping me finish.”
Antaya hopes to use her experience and her education to pursue a career in social work. In addition, Antaya and some other students also have laid the groundwork for a Quinnipiac chapter of SODA (Student Organ Donation Advocates). The new chapter hopes to run donor registration drives, host recipient and donor speakers, and dispel myths about organ donation regarding age and health. “I’m an organ donor,” Antaya said proudly.
Quinnipiac is a private, coeducational, nonsectarian institution located 90 minutes north of New York City and two hours from Boston. Quinnipiac is now classified as a Doctoral/Professional University, a recently created category by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education that recognizes Quinnipiac’s commitment to providing high-quality professional and doctoral degree programs at the graduate level. Quinnipiac also is recognized in Princeton Review’s “The Best 381 Colleges.” The Chronicle of Higher Education has named Quinnipiac among the Great Colleges to Work For®. For more information, please visit qu.edu. Connect with Quinnipiac on Facebook at facebook.com/quinnipiacunews and follow Quinnipiac on Twitter @QuinnipiacU.