The New Brunswick Anti-Tobacco Coalition’s (NBATC) National Non-Smoking Week #SayNoToTobacco Facebook Contest winners Valérie Doiron St-Coeur (29, Brantville, NB) and Josée Mallais (36, Tracadie, NB) are an inspiring duo.

You would never know upon meeting Valérie that she almost lost her life to cystic fibrosis. She lives a normal, healthy life these days thanks to a double lung transplant received in 2014. Her battle with the disease, deteriorating health, time spent in hospitals, and near-death experience have been a wake-up call to many friends and loved ones on how vital our lungs are. Friends like Josée Mallais have drawn inspiration from Valérie to succeed in quitting smoking. Contacted by the NBATC upon winning the contest, the pair eagerly shared their admiration for each other and their touching stories.

“I started smoking when I was only 12 years old,” recalls Josée. “I quit smoking and started again a few times throughout my teens and twenties. I have two children and I never smoked in the house nor in the car with them. I was even able to quit smoking while pregnant and nursing. But my addiction to nicotine was too powerful, so I always ended up going back to smoking cigarettes. For example, with my first child, I started smoking again once I stopped breastfeeding. It started with a casual cigarette when I was out with friends. I have friends who can smoke socially like that; have a cigarette while drinking or out for an evening. I thought that since I had stopped smoking, I would be able to just have one cigarette here and there too, and that I would not become addicted again. I was wrong.”

Many factors would finally come into play for Josée in 2015 for her to overcome this addiction.

“I was ready. I was fed up with smoking. The cost of cigarettes was making it less affordable, plus with the amendments to the Smoke-Free Places Act, it was becoming more difficult to smoke in public places, like on patios outside restaurants and other places. I knew it was not good for my health. My children were also asking me to quit. They wanted what was best for me. They did not like the fact that their mom was a smoker. And then, of course, there was Valérie’s story which shook me to the core.”

Valérie Doiron St-Coeur knows first hand how vital and important our lungs are. She was born with cystic fibrosis and would have to eventually fight for her life as her lungs deteriorated.

“We found out in 1989,” explains Valérie. “The doctors told my parents chances were slim that I would live past 5 or 6 years of age. But all in all, I lived a normal childhood. My lungs only started deteriorating later on. Sadly, and ironically, my older brother passed away of meningitis. I was the sick child and he was supposed to have been the healthy one. Yet, he passed away and I was still very much healthy in my teenage years.”

“I graduated from high school and went off to college. During my first year of college, I lived in a basement apartment. We think there might have been mould and fungi. My lungs caught a bacterial infection. And it was all downhill from there.”

Valerie spent the next 5 years in and out of hospitals. Her lung capacity eventually went down to only 30%.

“I was coughing up blood. I was constantly on antibiotics. The bacteria in my lungs had taken over and with my disease, they were not strong enough to fight it. Soon enough, I was on oxygen 24hrs/day and down to 89 lbs. I could not even brush my teeth by myself without being winded. The antibiotics that were sustaining what little I had left of my lungs were now affecting my kidneys and slowly killing me. I was placed on a priority list to receive a double lung transplant. The doctors at the hospital in Montreal where I was being taken care of basically told me there was nothing more they could do for me but pray for a miracle—that they would soon find a match for me.”

Valerie had to accept the reality that she was dying. The next few weeks would have been her last. But then, the miracle came.

“On April 17, 2014, my doctor came into my room. Are you enjoying your last meal? He asked me. He was always joking around and trying to lift the mood. I was so confused. Did he really imply that I was going to die that same day? We found a pair of lungs for you, he explained. A perfect match. Your last meal before your life can start over…”

“I was not sure if I should be happy or sad. I had accepted my fate. There were huge risks to this operation. The patient in the room next to me had had a lung transplant and died just 2-3 weeks later. She had waited too long for her transplant since there was a shortage of available donors. Her other organs had deteriorated so much by the time she had the graft that they were not able to sustain her new lungs. But my parents had already lost their first child. I did it for them, I wanted to live for them. The graft took 4 hours. It went well, and I woke up. My body healed quickly and accepted my new lungs beautifully. Only 8 hours later, I was breathing on my own.”

Valérie Doiron St-Coeur fought for her life in and out of hospitals for 5 years before finally receiving her new pair of lungs in 2014. She is shown here a few hours after the operation taking her first breaths with her new lungs.

Now, four years later, Valérie enjoys a full and healthy life. “I have a career. I am married. We are buying a house this year. I was never able to plan long-term like this before. I never knew if today was going to be my last day. And most of the time, I was too sick to do anything anyway.”

Valérie at her wedding in 2017. She is able to live a healthy and normal life these days thanks to her new lungs.

“People don’t realize how beautiful and vital their lungs are,” she adds. “If you cannot breathe, you cannot live. Many of my friends were shaken up when they saw me in the hospital connected to all these machines. The visual of seeing someone you know sick is very powerful, you start imagining yourself in their shoes and it’s scary. I think for most people, that’s what they need to realize how harmful something like smoking is. They have the choice, they have healthy lungs and they are self-inflicting damage which could make them end up as sick as I was.”

Valérie’s battle definitely made Josée reflect on her own lifestyle.

“I was really upset to see someone so young go through this kind of pain,” she says. “Valérie never smoked, she never intentionally damaged her lungs, she never had the choice. I had been given healthy lungs from birth, I had the choice not to harm them. It encouraged me to quit smoking. It was a huge wake-up call.”

With the help of her doctor who gave her a prescription for Champix, Josée started to reduce her tobacco consumption in the fall of 2015. In January 2016, she was officially a non-smoker. She was incredibly touched when Valérie reached out to congratulate her in January 2018 as part of the NBATC’s #SayNoToTobacco Facebook Contest.

“Josée Mallais, I am so proud of you—two years now that you are taking care of your lungs and have stopped smoking!” wrote Valérie.

“I am also proud of myself! It is still a struggle sometimes, but I think of you every time I have an urge to smoke and I am inspired to keep going strong!” Josée wrote back.

Josée thus celebrated her 2-year smoke-free anniversary by receiving the news that she and Valérie had won the NBATC’s #SayNoToTobacco Facebook contest!

Valérie continues to spread the message to anyone who listens that it is important to take care of our lungs. She was also recently incredibly touched when the husband and daughter of the woman whose lungs she had inherited reached out to her. A friendship was formed, and they even attended her wedding in the summer of 2017.

“I was able to live because of her, and them” she says. “She had signed the donor card, but her family still had the right to honour or not her last wishes. They choose to do so and donate her organs. And I lived because of this amazing gift.”

Josée Mallais drew inspiration from her friend Valérie’s story to quit smoking. She recently celebrated her 2nd year quit smoking anniversary!

“I really hope my story inspires more people to take care of their lungs”, she adds. “I have seen too many patients—new friends of mine—die of lung cancer while I was in the hospital. It was often very soon after their diagnosis that they would pass away. It was already too late for them. I don’t want anyone with healthy lungs to have to go through what I went through because they choose to smoke and damage their lungs. Please everyone, say no to tobacco!”

Congratulations Valérie and Josée! The NBATC is proud to have you among our Tobacco-Free Living Champions!

Story and photos used with permission from Valérie Doiron St-Coeur and Josée Mallais.

Published in April 2018.

By Nathalie Landry – NBATC Communications Coordinator.