JOHN STEVENSON/The Herald-Sun DURHAM
Court cashier Rebecca Barber remembers it as love at first sight, an almost fairytale- like, motion-picture-quality encounter with the man of her dreams. It happened just before Thanksgiving of 1999. Back then, Rebecca was a bank teller in Houston and Brent Barber worked as a respiratory therapist in Durham. After the two got acquainted through an Internet chat room, Brent flew to Texas to scope out his cyberspace sweetheart in person. "I was very nervous about the whole thing," Rebecca recalled in an interview. "My family thought I was crazy. But everything came together so easily. It was amazing. When we first saw each other, it was exactly like in the movies. I just totally knew it was all going to fit together." Brent has similar recollections of that first meeting. "She was so nervous, she wasn't sure how much information she should give me," he laughed. "I asked her what kind of car she drove. What color Was it? She was afraid to tell me. She thought I might be stalking her, I guess. Then we hit it right off." The two married in April 2002, settled in Durham and now have a daughter named Kennedy. Weighing in at 145 pounds, Brent Barber flashes a winsome grin and emits a boyish chuckle that belie his age 37. But all is not well. A genetic medical condition cystic fibrosis has ravaged his chest cavity with mucus and inflammation, making him a candidate for early death unless he receives a double lung transplant. Diagnosed at 2 years old, he wasn't placed on a transplant waiting list until roughly a year ago. Now, time is of the essence. According to the American Lung Association Web site, "the majority of qualified candidates will not live longer than 1 or 2 years without a transplant." If he doesn't receive a new pair of lungs, complications like infection, pneumonia and bleeding "most likely will be the demise of me," Brent said matter-of-factly. "I'm pretty accepting of this," he added. "I've had a lot of time to think about it and have gone through all the emotions. I'm as comfortable as I can be, I guess. I'm not a human suicide bomber, ready to go at a moment's notice. But I'm ready." Meanwhile, Brent must undergo about three hospitalizations a year each as long as a month to receive antibiotics and other life-sustaining treatments. The projected transplant costs are high, particularly for a man who has been on disability since 2002. However, Rebecca said her court job comes with state insurance that should cover all but about $50,000 of the projected $400,000 to $500,000 bill. Brent's mother in Montana has raffled quilts and held dinners to raise money. "It's so stressful to have to think about the funds," said Rebecca. "It really overwhelms me. Finally, I had to step back and let his mom take care of that stuff." Through it all, Rebecca maintains a philosophical attitude about the situation, turning a cold shoulder on despair and seeking brightness in adversity. "There's so many people who have it worse than we do," she told The Herald-Sun. "That keeps us going. It could be a lot worse. It helps to think about it in those terms." Her husband agrees. He said that, rather than withering the couple's relationship, his lifelong ailment seems to have nurtured it. "Our marriage is probably stronger because of the things we've had to go through," he said. "It's taught us a lot about respect and love. You definitely learn more about each other this way. Are you really going to be there for somebody? You learn how much you care, how selfish you can be and things like that." Brent remains optimistic about the future. "I look at this [cystic fibrosis] as one of the mean things in life," he mused. "Everybody has obstacles. This is mine. I hope to overcome it and live 30 or 40 more years. I want to be a spokesman for others who need transplants. I want to spend quality time with my family, ride a bike with my daughter." But for now, bike-riding is out of the question. Brent needs an oxygen bottle even for a short walk from house to car. "I just get super short of breath," he said. "My chest hurts. I get anxiety and feel like I'm suffocating." Update on Brent's condition In communication with the Havre Daily News Tuesday, Bettie Barber said her son Brent's condition has become critical. "Never a dull moment in our lives," Barber wrote. "Right now I am in North Carolina. Brents's wife called Friday and he had taken a turn for the worst. His lungs are not strong enough to force the CO2 out of his lungs, and due to lack of oxygen he was delisional. "Without (going into) too much depth, he is better today, but will probally not be back anywhere near the level he was," Barber e-mailed. "The good news about that is he is now No. 1 on the transplant list at UNC. So we are praying that this is the road God wants us to travel to his transplant." Barber said she woul d attempt to keep the Havre Daily News posted. An account has been established in Chinook to assist the Barber family with their son's medical expenses. Donations can be made to the Brent Barber Fund at First Bank of Montana P.O. Box 9, Chinook, MT 59523. Lung transplants About 3,500 people in the United States were waiting for lung transplants in 2005, but only 1,000 received them, according to the American Lung Association Web site. Figures for 2006 and 2007 were not provided on the site Monday. In 2004, some 533 patients died while awaiting transplants, the site indicated. Those desiring more information about becoming donors may visit www.organdonor.gov. According to the American Lung Association, survival rates as of November 2005 were 80 percent at one year following surgery, and 60 percent at four years. There is encouraging news as well. In October, UNC Health Care reported that a man named Scott Johnson had recently completed an Ironman contest in Florida after undergoing a double lung transplant in Chapel Hill several years earlier. In its report, UNC d e s c r i b e d t h e t r i a t h l o n Ironman competition as "one of the most grueling athletic events in the world." As for the Duke Transplant Center, its Web site indicates it performed 60 bilateral lung transplants in 2006 down from 67 the previous year, but up from 50 in 2002. The patient survival rate a year following surgery was posted at 91 percent, significantly higher than the national average. The Web site said Duke recently performed its 600th lung replacement operation and has had one of the largest lung transplant programs in the country since 1997. Information can be obtained from Carolina Donor Services (www.carolinadonorservices. org), the United Network for Organ Sharing (www.unos.org) and the Coalition on Donation (www.shareyourlife.org).