Breathing for a Living: A Memoir

Breathing for a Living: A Memoir

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by Laura Rothenberg

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A moving account by an extraordinary young woman who mounts a daily struggle with cystic fibrosis in an effort to lead an ordinary life.

Twenty-one-year-old Laura Rothenberg has always tried to live a normal life — even with lungs that betray her, and a sober awareness that she may not live to see her next birthday. Like most people born with cystic


A moving account by an extraordinary young woman who mounts a daily struggle with cystic fibrosis in an effort to lead an ordinary life.

Twenty-one-year-old Laura Rothenberg has always tried to live a normal life — even with lungs that betray her, and a sober awareness that she may not live to see her next birthday. Like most people born with cystic fibrosis, the chronic disease that affects lungs and other organs, Rothenberg struggles to come to grips with a life that has already been compromised in many ways. Sometimes healthy and able to go to school, other times hospitalized for months on end, Rothenberg finds solace in keeping a diary. In her writing, she can be open, honest, and irreverent, like the young person she is. Yet mixed in with this voice is an incredible maturity about her mortality.

The memoir opens with Rothenberg's decision to accept a lung transplant. From the waiting — and all it implies to the surgery, recovery, and her new life, Rothenberg muses on mortality in journal entries and poetry. Through it all, she reveals a will and temperament that is strong and wise despite her years.

Laura Rothenberg's story, recorded and shared on NPR's Radio Diaries, was awarded the prestigious Third Coast Audio Festival Award, it also received an unprecedented listener response and generated more e-mail than any other story the producers could recall. Rothenberg's story was also featured in the New York Times and U.S. News & World Report.

Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
The follow-up to an award-winning audio diary recorded for NPR, Breathing for a Living chronicles two and half stressful years in the life of cystic fibrosis patient Laura Rothenberg -- from her agonizing decision to undergo a risky double-lung transplant through ten perilous post-op months filled with frightening complications and heartbreaking setbacks.

In writing that is straightforward, emotionally honest, and utterly unsentimental, Rothenberg describes the details of her interrupted life: a college career (at Brown University) sidetracked by long hospitalizations; activities derailed by unpleasant medical procedures; and debilitating bouts of nausea, tremors, depression, and self-pity. Through it all, she remains doggedly determined to maintain some semblance of normalcy. She composes emails from her hospital bed, she makes plans between bronchoscopies -- and when her "numbers" are good and she's felling well, she skates, goes to school, watches Law & Order reruns, gorges on pudding cups, and hangs with her friends.

What shines through in this extraordinary memoir is Rothenberg's unflinching self-awareness. She rides the roller coaster of her emotions unapologetically, careening from the willfulness of a pouting child to the stoicism of the professional patient. Having said goodbye to so many friends with CF, she has hope, but no illusions.

Breathing for a Living opens with these two arresting sentences: "I am having a midlife crisis. Tomorrow I will be nineteen." Sadly, these mathematical calculations were far off the mark. On March 21, 2003, almost two years after her transplant, Laura Rothenberg died from chronic organ rejection. She was 22 years old. Anne Markowski

Completely original … a crash course in the history of twentieth century culture . . . leaving us shaking with laughter.
The New York Times
"I'm a typical college student, if there is such a thing," she writes. "Except that I won't be able to look back on my life from an old age." An awareness of that immutable fact colors everything about Ms. Rothenberg's story, and yet her book is much more scrappy, tenacious and vibrant than it is sad. She succeeded resoundingly in turning those proverbial lemons into lemonade. — Janet Maslin
The Washington Post
Breathing for a Living tells the story of Rothenberg's fears and hopes as she waits for new lungs, and her discouragement, suffering and flashes of joy once she has received them. Woven among the descriptions of medical procedures and the inspiring, imperfect love of friends and family, an immense courage is on display here, a marvelous and rare courage. — Laura Rothenberg
Entertainment Weekly
Remarkably clear-eyed.
San Francisco Chronicle
It provokes a rush of feeling . . .
Boston Globe
Through the patient and painstaking detail of her plight, Rothenberg manages to convey a sense of who she was.
San Diego Tribune
The Laura Rothenberg that lingers in the mind is a . . . witty and precocious New Yorker.
Publishers Weekly
"I'm a typical college student, if there is such a thing," writes Rothenberg in this far from typical work. "Except that I won't be able to look back on my life from an old age." Rothenberg, who died in March at the age of 22, originally wrote these calm, devastating lines in an essay as a freshman at Brown University. During her sophomore year, after Rothenberg became so ill from cystic fibrosis that she had to leave school, she decided to weave this essay into a much longer account. Starting early in 2001, as she waited in Boston for a double lung transplant, and continuing until her death, Rothenberg collected her personal diary entries, poems and copies of the e-mails she wrote to her many friends-dispatches from the battlefield of her own body. Shining through every report, every raw or bittersweet detail, is a fierce dedication to honesty and an immense desire to connect to friends and to life. "We have lungs," one of her doctors calls to tell her early one morning. Rothenberg describes repeating the phrase into the phone to her still-sleeping parents; they were on their feet and packing by the time she repeated the joyous phrase to other friends, who repeated it like a mantra into mobile phones until the waiting room at Boston's Children's Hospital was overflowing with people who loved her-"Team Laura." Too soon, however, the joy of the transplant and her return to Brown gives way to descriptions of one setback after another, culminating in rejection of the lungs. Refusing to indulge in even a wisp of false hope or consolation, Rothenberg reminds us that there is a power in us that is greater than even the greatest suffering. This slim book will help anyone whose life has been touched by cystic fibrosis, and countless others as well. It is an unforgettably real testament of the strength of one human spirit, and of our common human wish to know and say and be the truth. First serial to Glamour magazine. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
"It provokes a rush of feeling . . . " (San Francisco Chronicle)
Kirkus Reviews
A posthumously published account of the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer's decision to undergo a lung transplant offers a memorable testament to her resilient spirit. This finely wrought chronicle about choosing to live to the full in the face of death admirably balances the author's fears and hopes. NPR Radio Diaries contributor Rothenberg is neither mawkishly self-pitying nor unrealistically optimistic as she reviews her life and the choices she faces. After she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and underwent surgery when she was three days old, she experienced countless operations, hospital stays, and ER visits. She saw fellow sufferers die young, and had no illusions about the disease; statistically, her midlife expectancy was 28. But at 19, the year the memoir begins, she is contemplating a lung transplant. A student at Brown, she swims, loves writing, and has numerous friends, but, as she notes, "here I am at college, and I can't write about the future." Her pancreas doesn't function, she must take insulin, her lungs are congested, and she can't have children. She'd be happy to have vacations that didn't involve hospitalizations. As she mulls over whether she should undergo the 12-hour operation that will deter the disease's progression, she admits fearing that it won't work. Once decided on surgery, she writes in diary entries and e-mails about her feelings, activities, friends, and family as she waits for a suitable tissue match. The operation in July 2001 is brutal, and so is her recovery; she suffers bowel obstructions, pneumonia, and lymphoma as her body rejects the lungs. But despite the hospital stays, Rothenberg sees friends, goes back briefly to Brown, and isdetermined not to let "my health rule my life." An epilogue written shortly before her death in March 2003 acknowledges that she's experiencing acute rejection, and doesn't know whether it is easier to live or die. Moving for all the right reasons.

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.69(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

Meet the Author

Laura Rothenberg was born and raised in New York City and attended the Chapin School and Brown University. She died in March of 2003.
Part of Laura Rothenberg's story was recorded and shared on NPR's Radio Diaries. To listen to it, link to

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Breathing For A Living 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone who knows a child with CF will appreciate and respect what Laura Rothenburg has to say. Though it was at times devastating to read, information is certainly power! My 9 year old niece has CF and I worry about her every day. Until 'Silly Sally' contracts a FATAL disease or has a loved one with a FATAL disease, I think she should keep her ill-informed and disrespectful comments to herself. And, please, get out of the medical profession! A young person facing death, facing no future is wrong on so many levels. I wonder if any of us could be as brave as Laura was. She had the courage to not only live it, but to write about it. Well done!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book allows the reader to take a glimpse of the life of an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. You will laugh and cry. Laura will truly touch your heart.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I belive this should be a great book. As a child with CF, I enjoy reading books such as those as other people going through the same thing I am. Sometimes, it's hard to read things like this, because it makes you look towards your future, whether or not you'll make it. It's kind of depressing. But even though I haven't read this yet, I hope to, and see what her life was like. Maybe she should foucus on more of the positive things she has done within her life. How she might of had fun living with what she had, and not against it. She should've talked about what great times she had with family, friends...etc and explained how much they meant to her. Always, Hannah Clark Age:13
Guest More than 1 year ago
Laura's honest and often blunt accounts of the daily struggles of a CF patient will be an eye-opener for many. She serves to educate the reader and make them understand her plight. She is not a whiner or someone looking for pity. She is a young woman consumed with this disease longing for the 'normal' experiences of other people her age. Laura was a brave woman who was determined to not give up without a fight. This book focuses more on her lung transplant and the months following. Thank you for telling your story in an honest, straight-forward way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A special story of a special lady to young to leave us. Thank you ABC TV for your program that brought this young lady to my eyes, mind and heart.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This entire book is one big whinefest by the author. For someone who knows she has a very limited time left to live, you'd think she'd appreciate her life. Wrong. All she does is complain about her current circumstances. You really get the feeling that she wants you to pity her, when really I just wanted to tell her to suck it up. I'm not trying to say what she goes through is easy, or that I could do it any better, but I know that if I were dying, I'd take a little time to let everyone know how much I appreciate them, and how much I enjoyed life. She sends her friends regular updates on her medical status, rarely telling them when something improves, but always dwelling on what bad things were happening. She would complain that her friends would never call or stop by, and when they did it's because they thought of her as a chore. First of all, if someone wrote me emails like that, I wouldn't want to visit either. Second of all, obviously her friends didn't think of her as a chore otherwise they wouldn't have driven hours to see her. I think the large group who shows up for her transplant is testimony to them being true friends and not only visiting because they feel obliged to. Perhaps she didn't see this. She complains about the doctors and makes it out like she knows better than they do about what they are doing. The entire time I was reading, I was waiting for her to say how she appreciates her life being as long as it is (not that many CF patients live to be that long) and how appreciative she is of the medical advances that have helped her. Perhaps she did feel this way, but just didn't write about. I hope that is the case.