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Meet All in for CF Scholarship Recipient Carly Wheeler

Following a lung transplant, Carly returns to college to achieve her goal of becoming a biologist

Carly Wheeler had just begun her freshman year at Southeast Missouri State University when one of her lungs collapsed. Her cystic fibrosis (CF) treatment team repaired the lung with surgery, but because her lung function had significantly decreased, they told her she would most likely need a transplant.

At 19 years old, she began a four-and-a-half year long wait for a new set of lungs, a taxing journey that prevented her from continuing her studies.

“It was very difficult to go to school while I was on the transplant list,” she said. “I tried to take some classes towards my degree, but I was sick frequently and struggled financially to pay for school.”

Finally, in December 2016, Carly received a call that her transplant teams had found a matching donor. 

“We all just felt so relieved, and so grateful,” she recalled.

After recovering from her double lung transplant, Carly’s first goal was to return to school.

She has since enrolled at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she is supported by one of Vertex’s first All in for CF Scholarships. Carly is studying biology and genetics so that she can ultimately contribute to CF and genetic disease research.

Carly was diagnosed with CF when she was a month old, and until she was nine, remained relatively healthy. When she was 10 years old, a serious infection landed her in the hospital. From that point on, she spent even more time in the hospital. As a high school student, she was hospitalized an average of three times per year. Her mother, Paula Wheeler, a nurse, often cared for her at home.

Today, Carly recalls that during her time on the transplant waitlist, she sometimes feared her team would never find a donor match.

“I had to keep myself busy and really try hard not to constantly think about the fact that I was waiting for new lungs,” she said.

Carly said that her experience on the transplant waitlist taught her the value of persistence and has given her the courage to return to college, where she is now working closely with her advisors, her treatment team, and her professors to balance her course load and her need to take care of her health.

“Waiting four years for new lungs was a really difficult mental and physical challenge,” she said. “I never guessed I would have to wait so long. But I now have the confidence to get through anything. I feel I have been granted a second chance at life, and I want to use it to inspire, love and help others.”

She intends to do this by pursuing a career as a research scientist, so that she can help people affected by CF and other diseases.

“I spent so many years relying on others to care for me,” she said. “I’m thrilled at the opportunity to continue my education and one day help others with CF. I want to pay it forward and help other people live their fullest lives.”

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