A Graduate Has Gratitude for the New Life that Columbia Gave Her

An MFA Writing student remembers the double lung transplant that saved her–and so much more.

Orla Tinsley
May 20, 2020

Gratitude is the word that rises up first for me in relation to what Columbia University has given me. I will graduate from the MFA Writing program at the School of the Arts this month, but my time at Columbia has been so much more than one defining experience or a collection of them that can be condensed or controlled. I feel lucky to have taught my first classes as part of my time here, and to have evolved as an educator, a writer and an activist within the rectilinear boundaries of the campus.

I want to continue to develop teaching methods that focus on access to education, healthcare and the world. 

There are so many memories that reel through my mind as my time here ends. This week, as we graduate virtually, we do the best we can to hold the fabric of our worlds together without leaving home. We move to continue to create new stories, and our lives, with heart and determination. I remember the words of Twyla Tharp printed on the wall opposite a downtown art gallery we visited on the last class of my last semester: “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Those words feel particularly relevant right now. I am grateful for the friendships and creative connections made here. I know those connections will continue no matter where we are located. 

The crisp December air dropped into my lungs when I first looked up at that wall. The week happened to mark one year since a surgery that saved my life. This is the most prominent memory, waking up to the world even as life had seemed like it was ending. I took my first steps afterwards surrounded by Columbia University and New York Presbyterian transplant team members. I took my first steps surrounded by family and friends who watched virtually from Ireland and across the world. I repeated a mantra in my head: “I’m going to get to graduation. I’m going to honor my donor, my family and my communities.” I reminded myself every time my new life was challenging. I reminded myself when I ran for the first time tuned into the flow of the Hudson River horizon.

I am grateful for this moment and for all of the moments that have gotten me here. Although I cannot hug my parents this week as planned, and I will miss this dearly, I will be holding them in my heart. They will be watching from Ireland as we all adhere to social distancing in respect of our friends, our neighbors and those we do not yet know. I dedicate my graduation to my family for the lifetimes over that they have given to me. I dedicate it to all of the healthcare workers who have stood by my side throughout my life, too. Every night at 7 pm, the primal scream of gratitude that sweeps through New York City reminds me of the privilege of being alive, and I scream in solidarity.