KEYPORT, N.J. (AP) — It started with a cough that would not go away.
"I was ignoring it," Dawn Burke said.
Then came two bouts of pneumonia, one month apart. Tests led to a stunning diagnosis: Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), a disease that scars the lungs for unknown reasons.
Burke, a longtime Keyport resident, never smoked or had prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals. Now she faced an irreversible, worsening condition. In September 2017, she joined the waiting list for a lung transplant.
A year-and-a-half later, the 59-year-old is still waiting. Supplemental oxygen and a positive attitude get her through the day, but those days are slowly getting harder.
"It's been a life-changing experience," she said. "I'm usually an active person, always on the go. Now I can only do so much."
There were more than 36,000 organ transplants in the United States in 2018, a record number. More than half were kidneys, which can be recovered from living or deceased donors. Lungs are harder to come by.
There were 59 lung transplants in New Jersey last year. At the start 2019, there were 64 Garden State residents on the lung transplant waiting list. Wait times depend on biological match factors and the severity of the patient's condition.
"Some people wait a year or two, some people wait a month," Burke said. "I try to ignore it. If I concentrate on (the wait), it'll drive me nuts. I try to maintain as normal a life as I can."
She had to leave her job at the U.S. Department of Commerce, one that required a good deal of walking. She shelved some of her favorite hobbies, like gardening and dancing. But she still drives, cooks, plays cards and goes out to lunch with friends.
Twice a week, Burke visits Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, where she exercises at the pulmonary rehabilitation center. Oxygen tank and all, she hits the cardio machines for an hour-long workout, give or take a few minutes.
"With Dawn it's day by day, what she can really tolerate," respiratory therapist Terri Price said. "It's so important for her to exercise because going into (the lung transplant), she has to be strong enough to withstand all that."
Although both of her lungs are scarred from IPF, only her right lung will be replaced. The surgery will take place at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, and she must remain within a two-hour drive because a match could come in at any moment. Newark Beth Israel averages 16 lung transplants per year and has performed four already in 2019.
"I'm still afraid, but I try to push that aside," Burke said.
Burke tells her story because awareness is the lifeblood of organ donation.
"It's been increasing steadily over the last decade or so," said Elisse Glennon, vice president of the NJ Sharing Network, a leading organ-donation nonprofit based in New Providence. "About 65 percent of the time a family does say yes to donation when their loved one passes away."
Glennon said 33 percent of New Jersey adults are registered organ donors. Burke is one of them, and so is her 31-year-old son Darren. He signed up first, a few years back.
"When he told me I was quite surprised," Burke said. "I didn't pay attention to it until I got sick, and then I realized how one person could save maybe eight lives through organ donation. With that, I changed it on my license as well."
After the transplant, Burke has a bucket list of things to do: visit Darren, who lives in Hawaii, attend the Transplant Games of America, which will be held in New Jersey in 2020, and make the rounds as an organ donor advocate.
Until then, she is keeping the faith. Each of her days begins and ends with prayer and a reading of affirmations.
"One of my favorite ones is, when you wake up, no matter how you feel, get up, get dressed and show up, and never give up," Burke said. "No matter how you feel."