In a year, Clovis woman goes from double-lung transplant to Half Dome hike

The Fresno BeeJuly 3, 2014 

Last summer, Amanda Moretto of Clovis was starting recovery from a double-lung transplant. This summer, she's hiking Half Dome.

The hike with her family comes Sunday — a celebration of her remarkable recovery.

"It's just a personal challenge," she says. "It's a bucket list thing. Not making it isn't an option. I'll make it."

Moretto was born in 1989 with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive tract. At that time, life expectancy for those with cystic fibrosis was 16 years.

The gene that causes the disease has since been discovered, and breathing treatments and medications have changed life expectancy to about 40. Moretto still has the gene, although the double-lung transplant was performed with the intention of prolonging her life.

Moretto is 25, married and studying for her dietetic technician, registered, certification as well as feeling a new lease on life.

"I feel very blessed," she says. "It was weird at first. I thought, 'Why do I deserve a second chance at life?' Someone had to die for me to have these lungs."

Moretto took that feeling and committed herself to her recovery. Two weeks after surgery, she began her rehabilitation at Mountain View Rehabilitation and Care Center in the Bay Area. Patients in similar situations need four months in rehab.

In her first week, Moretto sent a selfie to her mother, Jocelyn Bergman of Fresno, with the text: "Look where I am!"

Moretto was sitting on a stationary bike — and on her way to pedaling for six miles over 25 minutes. No oxygen needed.

Her rehab time was cut in half. Doctors at Stanford University Medical Center, where she received the double-lung transplant, cleared her after two months to return home, where she started gym workouts.

"She got her double-lung transplant, she has done well, and we're very happy," says Dr. Gundeep Dhillon, who performed the transplant. "She has done remarkably well."

Filled with confidence, Moretto asked her father, Roger Bergman, whether she could hike Half Dome with him.

Bergman, who teaches choral music at Buchanan High School and attends The Bridge Church with his wife, has hiked to the top of Half Dome 20 times.

His response? "I thought it was really cool she asked. Why not?"

Tough start to life

Amanda's birth wasn't planned. The Bergmans were stopping after having two sons, Michael and Phillip.

"I got pregnant (with Amanda) while I was on birth control," Jocelyn Bergman says. "We didn't plan for this. God, obviously, wanted her here. I thought, 'We have to trust him for this.' "

Amanda was just 9 months old when doctors saw red flags: She began losing weight rather than gaining it. Tests revealed cystic fibrosis.

"We had no connection to cystic fibrosis, except knowing one family in church," Roger Bergman says. The Bergmans at the time attended Campus Bible Church. "Theirs was a tragedy. It was severe cystic fibrosis, and their girl died at 8 years old on a family outing."

Jocelyn Bergman said the news of Amanda's diagnosis was devastating.

"She was our only daughter. The diagnosis was a death sentence — that she wouldn't get to grow up."

The Bergmans invested time learning about cystic fibrosis. And at the Children's Hospital Central California cystic fibrosis clinic, they teamed with another family going through a similar experience. It helped the Bergmans.

They also learned about medical advancements in cystic fibrosis — and the longer life expectancy.

The Bergmans also turned to God.

"Because of my faith, I had great peace through the whole process," Jocelyn Bergman says. "I should've panicked, because we could've lost her. I was steeping myself in God's word. Giving her to him was how I could handle it."

The Bergmans started a rigorous daily regimen of breathing treatments — putting Amanda on her stomach and pounding her back to break up the thick, sticky mucus built up in her lungs — and medications that, for the most part, worked to slow the progression of the disease.

Amanda says she always felt she lived a normal life as she attended McCardle Elementary School, Ahwahnee Middle School and Hoover High School — except for one thing.

"They would hold my enzymes (medication) at the school nurses' office." But, "Growing up, it didn't hold me back."

Amanda and her family had one childhood scare: a lung infection at age 11 that led to pneumonia.

A fighter, she bounced back.

From good to bad

Moretto says she has learned to always weigh cystic fibrosis — and her faith — in her decisions.

After graduating from Hoover in 2007, she studied food and nutritional science at Fresno State with an option in dietetics.

In 2011, she got a tattoo on her right foot to symbolize her disease as well as God's promises.

The tattoo is a red rose, a thorn and "Jeremiah 29:11."

The thorn symbolizes cystic fibrosis, which she believes is similar to the "thorn in my flesh" that the Apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Paul pleads in verse 8 for the Lord to "take it away from me."

Moretto says she asked God to do the same with her cystic fibrosis.

And she has experienced comfort through Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

Plans?

While attending Fresno State, a friend, Katie Davis, invited Amanda to a party and introduced her to Matthew Moretto, who was graduating from Fresno Pacific University.

"It was a set-up," says Matthew Moretto, with a smile.

The couple married in July 2012. He went to work for American Ambulance as an emergency medical technician.

By her wedding day, Moretto's oxygen level had dropped to 50% capacity. But Roger Bergman says his daughter seemed like a "normal" 23-year-old except for the occasional coughing.

But in April 2013, Moretto's lungs took a dramatic turn for the worse. Suddenly, she was at 28%. Doctors put her on oxygen, and her spirits sank.

"Going on oxygen was one of my worst fears. It was a major sign of my lungs failing. It makes you feel that you failed."

Moretto carted her oxygen everywhere. She began to lose strength. On a family vacation at Pismo Beach, she could barely walk 50 yards to the beach and back without becoming totally exhausted.

Doctors put her on the transplant list.

There is just a four-hour window of opportunity between the donor's death and the transplant. Amanda and Matthew Moretto and the Bergmans faced a three-hour drive to Stanford University Medical Center. So everybody kept their bags packed.

On Aug. 1, a call came at 4 a.m. There was a match. Amanda and her family raced to Stanford. But doctors decided the donors' lungs didn't measure up to the quality that she needed. The surgery was canceled.

Two days later, Stanford called again. This time, the lungs measured up.

Dhillon and a team worked through the night, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Then, Dhillon walked into the waiting room, saying it was one of the most "relaxing" double-lung transplants that his team had experienced and with no apparent complications.

Later, Moretto sat up in her bed and greeted her family with a big smile. She also flashed a thumbs-up sign to her dad.

"Amazing what a little oxygen will do," she remembers.

Doctors won't perform double-lung transplants on patients with just a few years to live. Dhillon didn't elaborate on how many years Moretto could live.

Roger Bergman says the family witnessed a "steady stream of milestones and miracles" as she recovered and thrived.

As Moretto's oxygen levels increased to 94%, Half Dome came to her mind.

The lure of Half Dome

People come to Yosemite National Park with different abilities and challenges all the time.

Best known is adventurer Mark Wellman of Truckee, a paraplegic who climbed the sheer faces of El Capitan in 1989 and Half Dome in 1991, both with the help of Ahwahnee resident Mike Corbett.

In 1993, Wellman and Jeff Pagels of Green Bay, Wis., also paralyzed from the waist down, became the first paraplegics to traverse the Sierra on cross-country skis. They began their 50-mile trip across Yosemite's backcountry from just above Lee Vining near the park's eastern entrance.

Wayne Willoughby of Snelling, a physically challenged climber who battled back from a childhood bout with polio, completed a third ascent of El Capitan in 1995.

It is uncertain whether someone with a double-lung transplant has hiked Half Dome or points at Yosemite National Park.

One thing is certain: Half Dome is a challenge to anyone.

Roger Bergman is planning to lead Moretto and 11 others, all family and friends, starting at Happy Isles Trailhead. The 17-mile round trip will take them to Horse Trail, which leads onto the popular John Muir Trail.

People taking the John Muir Trail battle a climb in elevation of 4,800 feet to the Half Dome summit, which is nearly 5,000 feet above the Valley floor and 8,836 feet above sea level.

Steel cables bolted into the granite assist hikers up the final 400 vertical feet.

People can experience fatigue, altitude sickness and dehydration in their determination to reach the top. Some turn back.

Dhillon, the Stanford surgeon, doesn't have any concerns about Moretto hiking Half Dome "beyond anyone else her age."

She works out at a gym four to five times a week. And upon Dad's recommendation, she has been climbing the stairwell of the Fresno County Plaza Building in downtown Fresno — all 20 floors. He trains on the stairwell every time before taking on Half Dome.

They have been climbing the stairwell together weekly, along with other family members. One day, Moretto went up and down the building four times.

She also has trained at high elevations, including the Yosemite Falls Trail.

On the trek up Half Dome on Sunday, Roger Bergman plans to lead everyone at a moderate pace. He believes his daughter is prepared for the challenge.

She will have the support of those who love her — Dad, Mom, both brothers, her husband, her mother-in-law, Cathy Moretto, and six friends will all be wearing "Amanda's Hikers" T-shirts.

Moretto is grateful for her family's support and feels confident. She wants to stand on the broad crown of Half Dome, soak in the panoramic splendor of Yosemite National Park and thank God. She says she wouldn't trade her life for anything.

"Even a cure couldn't compare with this. God had a much better plan for me — more than I hoped."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304, rorozco@fresnobee.com or @ronorozco_bee on Twitter.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service