Her fragile appearance is immediately diminished by her extremely determined gaze. Alexandra Caldas, who was born with cystic fibrosis, did not want her life to be reduced to a pathology. In order to prove it to herself indefinitely and to give hope to other patients, she accomplished an extraordinary feat—she crossed the sea between Tahiti and Moorea in a double scull to promote organ donation. In 2012, she received a lung transplant and she affirms in a loud clear voice: “I am life!”
Born in 1995, Alexandra’s illness left her with a small stature that does not appear to predispose her to impressive physical feats. It also gave her a different childhood experience marked by pain, perpetual restraints and extensive medical treatments. However, this young woman also owes her extraordinary strength of character to this serious genetic disorder, which she calls her “best enemy.” She explains, “When you are afflicted with such a disease, you become independent very early on, since at a young age you have to learn how to administer your treatments. I also wanted to turn this illness into a strength, and thanks to this disease, I have had many experiences that without it, I would never have had.”
Cystic fibrosis is caused by a defective gene that causes, in particular, extremely severe lung and digestive disorders. In Alexandra’s case, it drastically limited her respiratory capacity to 20% when she turned 17 years old. There was only one solution for her survival—even if there was no cure for cystic fibrosis—a transplant of both lungs, which she underwent in Paris on November 20, 2012. She considers this date her second birthday despite many post-operative complications during the years that followed.
To overcome such challenges, one needs a tremendous amount of energy and joy of life as well as dreams that can give long term goals. Despite “only” two “lost” years, Alexandra is brilliantly pursuing her studies. She has a Bachelor’s in Geography and Territorial Development and plans to continue with a Master’s to work to “build cities that are more respectful of the environment and coastlines.”
She is also on a quest for more challenges. One determining factor was meeting Matthieu Forge, a physiotherapist with whom she developed an inspiring relationship. Because she complained all the time, yet still did things during a particularly painful period of her life, the young practitioner forged a very strong friendship with this young woman. From that moment, this duo will now face equal parts humor and challenges. When Matthieu left France to move to Tahiti, he encouraged Alexandra to play sports and gave her the desire to reach for new horizons. And because her doctor at the time told her that French Polynesia was an “unthinkable” destination, the young woman decided to do everything she could to get there…
Less than a year ago, she joined Mathieu’s former rowing club in France. After a few months, she was the only beginner to be given a boat to row all by herself over short distances, She was finally ready to meet the promise she made to herself the day of her lung transplant—to make her dreams come true to show others that “you must believe in life.”
Even if it meant going to French Polynesia, Mathieu proposed a crazy idea—that they both cross the high seas from Tahiti to Moorea in a double scull while rallying as many rowers as possible to believe in their organ donation cause. The first post of what was to become the “Rowing with Alexandra” challenge was launched eight months earlier on Facebook and soon had 11,000 likes and more than one million views. The project seemed even crazier since it required hauling a custom sea-racing scull made in Grenoble just for this occasion all the way to Tahiti. However, supporters queued up led by Air Tahiti Nui and the Rotary Club who made this dream come true.
On the morning of Saturday August 5, 2017, Matthieu and his “little rowing sister” who had never rowed this far, never mind on sea, completed the 17 km/11 mile crossing, “singing all the songs in their repertoire to keep them going,” accompanied by more than a hundred boats (including a V6 filled with Polynesians who had undergone kidney transplants). The crossing took two hours and thirty minutes. Overwhelmed by the hospitality and support of the locals that was so human, so warm and so welcoming, Alexandra took advantage of her visit to intern at a local environmental research office. She has managed to show everyone that you “can realize your dreams, even if you are ill.” This is a message of hope that she will continue to embody in order to better thank her lung donor and promote organ donations.
To follow Alexandra’s exploits and projects, visit the Facebook page “Rame avec Alexandra.” During her first visit to French Polynesia, Alexandra had many experiences: fire walking, rowing with dolphins, awards night at the Heiva…Enough to fill her with a true love for French Polynesia where she sees a lot to be accomplished in her field in Territorial Development. Perhaps this will be the beginning of new projects. The achievements of August 5 will result in a documentary to be broadcast on channels Polynésie 1ère and France Ô as well as in French hospitals and on Air Tahiti Nui flights. A few days before her return to France, Alexandra met Francis Gazeau, a Polynesian heart transplant who lived like Robinson Crusoe on Tahanea atoll to promote organ donations.