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Waiting for the call: New Los Altos resident with cystic fibrosis awaits organ transplants

Photo Photo By Elliott Burr/Town Crier Sharlie Kaltenbach and her husband, Ryan, hope she soon will receive a double-lung and heart transplant.

Los Altos resident Sharlie Kaltenbach chuckles whenever she recalls the puzzled look on a nurse’s face as she tried to listen for her heartbeat with a stethoscope.

There was none.

Kaltenbach calmly lifted her right arm.

“I told her, ‘Try here,’” said the smiling Los Altos resident, eyeing her armpit.

Sure enough, there was her heartbeat, thumping away in her armpit, leaving the nurse increasingly bewildered.

The episode isn’t all that uncommon for Kaltenbach, 32. Her right lung collapsed 15 years ago, shifting her internal organs, including her heart.

That’s just one of the many effects cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive systems of more than 30,000 people in the United States, has had on her body.

According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF), the disease forces the body to produce thick mucus that leads to infections and clogging of the lungs and prevents natural enzymes from breaking down food, among other things.

Kaltenbach’s health has regressed to the point that she must use an oxygen tank to assist her breathing.

Despite her predicament, Kaltenbach maintains a humorous, positive attitude – and with good reason. In September, she and her husband, Ryan, relocated with their son from San Diego to Los Altos, where she awaits a double-lung and heart transplant at Stanford Hospital.

“I consider it a blessing to know just how precious life is, to know what’s really important and what isn’t,” said Kaltenbach, diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as an infant. “It’s not sweating the small stuff when you live with a life-threatening disease.”

Kaltenbach said her positive attitude stems from numerous sources, including her 4-year-old son, Harrison, as well as her faith.

The 1995 death of her younger sister, Lexi, also diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, provides plenty of motivation as well. Lexi died at the age of 14 after being one of the youngest patients to receive a double-lung transplant at the time, according to Kaltenbach.

“She was just such a tremendous example to me,” said Kaltenbach, whose niece and nephew have been diagnosed with the disease. “She was just spunky and used humor a lot.”

It’s good to have friends

With Kaltenbach in Los Altos waiting for the call into surgery, her friends in San Diego went to work to help the family pay for the considerable medical costs associated with the procedure.

Jessica Erickson, a close friend of Kaltenbach’s for more than 25 years, helped organize a fundraiser for the family, “Air Supply – Filling Lungs with Love.” The Nov. 5 event, which featured items donated for an auction as well as individual donations, has generated more than $80,000 for the family to date, according to Erickson.

“It was amazing, because we really didn’t ask for it,” Kaltenbach said of the fundraiser. “It was just a group of our friends who perceived that need even before we even realized it was a need.”

Erickson said putting the fundraiser together was an easy decision, pointing to the inspiration Kaltenbach has provided for those around her.

“She’s one of those people you just want to be around because she’s so good,” Erickson said. “There were people involved who barely knew her but have seen her and heard her story, and they just love her.”

For the family, meanwhile, the event was a reunion of friends – old and new – that left them in awe.

“It was sort of a ‘This Is Your Life’ moment,” Ryan said. “People from her past 25 years were there, people with second and third degrees of separation and school friends. It was amazing.”

Home away from home

The much-anticipated call for surgery, Kaltenbach said, could happen at any time, though most patients have an average wait of six to nine months. In the meantime, she added, her family is enjoying its new surroundings in Los Altos, taking trips to Shoup Park and the Los Altos main library. The Kaltenbachs enrolled Harrison in a local soccer camp.

“The one thing we didn’t want to do is come here and wait for the call on pins and needles,” Kaltenbach said.

Despite the risks of the surgery, which will take 10-14 hours, the Kaltenbachs refuse to let negative thoughts swim through their minds. Instead, they prefer to focus on the possibilities available to them in the future.

For Ryan, those possibilities include going on hikes and bike rides as a family, or watching his wife chase their son around the house.

“As scary as it is, we’re actually really excited for the call to come,” he said. “We think of all the things we’ll be able to do that she’s never been able to do.”

For Erickson, it’s taking her lifelong friend out for a night of dancing – or simply hearing her laugh.

“She has the most infectious laugh,” Erickson said. “I look forward to hearing her laugh without needing to cough.”

Kaltenbach plans to embrace her future by remembering the outpouring of support and love she’s received along the way.

“I really know that I’ll look back at this time and not think of it as a time that was hard, but as a time that was just so beautiful for our family,” she said. “I don’t think too many people in their lives get to experience this kind of love. You just realize how wonderful people are.”

For more information on Kaltenbach’s “Air Supply – Filling Lungs with Love” fundraiser, visit www.fillinglungswithlove.com.

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