Faith, family help Derby parishioner cope with trials of a life-saving lung transplant

By Davi Stuhlsatz
Julia Biltz Rogers’ strong Catholic roots has enabled her to face life-threatening cystic-fibrosis and a double-lung transplant with faith and hope.
Rogers, 28, was hospitalized in the same hospital as her 23-year-old brother, Rafe Biltz, when he died from CF complications in January.
“He was such a good man,” she said. “I'm sad he can't be here physically with me now – healing, recovering, breathing, but I know he is happy, running, breathing, and so much more in Heaven right now.”
CF affects about 30,000 children and adults in the U.S., according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. It clogs the lungs, leads to life-threatening lung infections, obstructs the pancreas, and prevents the absorption of food.
The St. Michael, Mulvane parishioner said her illness tested her relationship with God, but ultimately it brought her closer to him.
“I was scared, angry, and sad in many ways through this entire process, but having family, friends, my husband, and God has helped so very much,” she said. “That poem Footprints in the Sand has also been an inspiration for me. Just thinking in the hardest times God was carrying me; it helps. I've learned to let go and trust God no matter what, to believe, to have faith, hope, and love with all my heart.”
Rogers has never let CF define her. She loves photography and poetry, art, short stories and music, plays the piano, makes videos and blogs, crochets and cross-stitches.
These past two years Julia was in and out of the hospital and has been continuous oxygen, except for one special event 18 months ago – her marriage to Joe Rogers.
“Our wedding day was perfect,” she said. “I had to wear my oxygen, but I was determined to walk down that aisle without it ... and I did! Marrying Joe, and having him as my husband, makes me so very happy. Even in the midst of being sickly, of being on oxygen, of struggling to breathe ... that was set aside by the joy and love we felt in our hearts.”
But Julia’s lung function continued to plummet. This past fall she dropped to 78 pounds with 14 percent lung function.
“I felt like I was trapped in my own body, unable to breathe, unable to walk even 10 steps without feeling out of breath,” she said.
Julia had always been horrified of a lung transplant, but it seemed there was no choice.
“I always felt like it would be the last resort and it really was,” she said. “I basically had no reserve left. If I got sick again – with anything – it could be the end for me. It was a miracle I survived my sickness in November – a real life true miracle.”
Julia was flown to UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, for days of evaluations and tests.
One consideration in the transplant candidate approval process is post-transplant support. Julia met that requirement easily. She and Joe each had nine siblings (including Julia’s brother, Father Max Biltz), loving parents, countless extended family and friends, and the support of their home parishes – St. Michael in Mulvane and St. Mary in Derby.
“The support we've received from people has touched our hearts greatly,” said Julia. “Complete strangers hear about our story and offer us up in their prayers – it is heart melting. “
Julia received new lungs on March 18.
“The first few weeks post-transplant are difficult,” she said. “It involves a lot of pain, many sleepless nights, lots of work, medication dosage changes, weird effects from the steroids, pain meeds, other medications, and just lots of ups and downs, but it is all so worth it, to be able to breathe.”
Julia said being without an ever-present oxygen tank is “amazing, wonderful, awesome... but weird!”
“I feel like an entirely new woman being able to get up and go without grabbing my oxygen, worrying if I have enough or not, lugging it around, constantly watching it to make sure I don't run out, staying away from flames... just everything I don't have to worry about anymore because of the oxygen,” she said.
Julia is grateful to God, and to her donor and his or her family for the “precious gift I will treasure forever.”
Julia lists things she will never take for granted: “life, each day, each breath, family, friends, walking, eating (after two weeks of not being able to eat), or simply breathing. How can I not be grateful?”
It was a rough journey, and difficulties remain. Transplanted lungs do not “get” CF because they come from people who do not have CF. However, post-transplant, the person still has CF in other organs. The anti-rejection drugs Julia will take the rest of her life significantly lower her immunity and have potentially serious side effects.
Rafe and Julia had promised to always be there for each other, and she believes he fulfilled his promise.
“I remember, right before I fell asleep from the anesthesia, I thought, ‘OK, Lord... let's do this... Rafe, let's beat this,’" she said. “I know Rafe met my donor with a huge hug. I know he's been beside me through every step of this journey; even though I can't see him, I know he's there.”

Want to help Julia ‘breathe’ a little easier?
The St. Mary-Derby/Rose Hill and St. Michael, Mulvane, communities are hosting a Cinco de Mayo Dinner from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 5, to raise money for Julia Rogers’ post-transplant medical expenses. It will be held at St. Mary’s Catholic School, 2306 E. Meadowlark, in Derby. There will also be piñatas for kids, silent auctions, and raffles.