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Freshman fights cystic fibrosis

Friends of Sabrina Kelley, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at six weeks, use words like flawless, extraordinary and perfect to describe her. Photo Courtesy of the Kelley Family.

Collin Burwinkel

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Flawless, extraordinary and perfect are just a few of the adjectives friends of UA freshman Sabrina Kelley use to describe her. Just like many other students, Kelley came to the University with aspirations to join Greek life, meet new friends and experience college for the first time. But Kelley’s story is different than most.

At just six weeks old, Kelley was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes severe damage to the lungs and digestive system.

“When I first moved in during the fall, Sabrina mentioned cystic fibrosis, but I didn’t really know what it was,” said Meghan Nash, a freshman majoring in political science and one of Kelley’s roommates.

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, over 30,000 people struggle with this terminal disease in the U.S.

“It wasn’t until I saw her taking 10 pills in the morning, 13 pills at night and having to wear a nebulizer mask to help her breathe and do all of these things did I realize how serious her condition was,” Nash said. “She is the most optimistic and positive person I know though and has such a great outlook on life. When I think of something bad happening, she will try to make a joke about it or lighten the mood.”

Originally from Boston, Kelley was eager to get involved with Greek life and other social events at the University despite her condition. She pledged Pi Beta Phi and accepted a bid in fall 2014.

Sidney Stratton, chapter president of Pi Beta Phi, said Kelley inspired her sorority sisters.

“She quickly made many friends in her pledge class and throughout our chapter and was a light to all she met. She inspired us with her perseverance as she battled cystic fibrosis each day but never let it slow her down,” Stratton said.

Friends alike said Kelley enjoyed the sorority experience.

“She idolized Reese Witherspoon in ‘Legally Blonde’ ever since she could speak and was totally sorority bound,” Nash said. “I think Pi Phi was such a great experience for her. On bid day, I remember I just saw a girl smiling from ear to ear.”

As the weeks turned to months, Kelley grew accustomed to her new college lifestyle.

“She loved the idea of a big southern school, she loved country music and just loved everything about it. Alabama felt like a great fit for her,” Nash said.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Kelley came down with a virus and was forced to return home early for the holiday. As she returned home to Boston, she was admitted to the intensive care unit in the hospital due to respiratory failure. On Thanksgiving morning, Kelley was placed on life support. Despite making a 4.0 GPA, Kelley’s parents were forced to withdraw her from the University.

Jared Morgan, a friend of Kelley’s and a freshman majoring in chemical engineering, said Kelley may have been sick for a longer period of time.

“I think from what we understood, she may have been sick this whole semester, but didn’t show it at all,” he said. “She went to all of the football games and all of the sorority events, but she kind of dealt with herself being sick. So, when she didn’t tell her parents or us when she caught something small, especially with her diseases, it may have been something bigger.”

Kelley’s friends said they worried about her health and well being.

“When Sabrina gets sick, she doesn’t try to show it as much,” Nash said. “You don’t think it could get worse after life support, but it did.”

Due to Kelley’s cystic fibrosis, her lungs could no longer function properly. Doctors told Kelley’s family that the disease also greatly damaged her liver. Kelley needed both new lungs and a new liver in order to survive.

“We figured she would be pretty high up on the transplant list, but when someone has a certain set of organs and they are a match for another persons, it’s a battle between doctors and parents trying to advocate for their kids to get those transplants,” Nash said.

While Kelley waited on the transplant list, her roommates, friends and sorority sisters orchestrated a candlelight vigil for her at the Pi Beta Phi house.

“I bought 200 candles and I think we had two or three left over after it was all done,” Nash said. “It was very moving and almost unreal to see all of these people there in support of her.”

Pam Kelley, Kelley’s mother, said the support her daughter’s UA family has shown has been overwhelming.

“We have been so touched by the outpouring of love and support; it has just been amazing,” she said. “The students, sorority sisters, faculty and staff from The University of Alabama have been a wonderful support system for us during this very difficult time. One of the most touching moments for us was the candlelight vigil her roommates and sorority sisters organized for her in December. They taped the group shouting out that they loved her and missed her. We played that video for her even though she was unconscious and on life support at the time.”

As Kelley waited on the transplant list, each passing day brought more uncertainty for her future. Then, a donor organ match became available.

On New Years Day, Kelley received a double lung transplant and a liver transplant.

“She was the third cystic fibrosis patient with a double transplant ever at her hospital, which is the number one hospital for cystic fibrosis research,” Nash said.

Just days after the transplant, problems arose with her new liver and more surgery was needed. During the procedure, an MRI showed that Kelley had suffered a stroke. Now, she had to recover not just from the lung and liver transplant, but from a stroke as well.

“Her liver and lungs are doing better, but now it’s just a matter of working with her because her stroke set her back,” Nash said. “Now she’s at the point where she’s moving toes and fingers. They are little things, but they mean a lot for her recovery.”

To help with medical fees, Kelley’s family and friends decided to start a youcaring.com account to offset the expenses of rehabilitation and so on. With a goal of $250,000, as of Feb. 1, almost 800 people have donated close to $125,000.

”One day, I refreshed the page and it had over $100,000 raised for her and I was amazed,” Nash said. “The page has thousands of shares on Facebook too.”

As she recovers, Kelley’s mom said her strength will endure.

“We know it isn’t going to be easy or quick, but we also know she won’t give up on this battle either,” Kelley said. “We are just so happy to wake up every morning and still have her in this world with us.”

Friends and family members say their lives have been impacted due to Kelley’s story.

“It’s not The University of Alabama without Sabrina Kelley, I can tell you that,” Morgan said. “I’ve never met anyone with a truly life threatening illness. She’s just changed how I look at life.”

Kelley’s fundraising page can be found by going to youcaring.com and searching for Sabrina Kelley. 

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Freshman fights cystic fibrosis