My Story. My Life. A Transplant that saved my life

By Sarah Harper on Apr 1, 2018

Katie Hawkins Beall is a proud Troy University Trojan and veteran, plus a loving daughter, sister, military spouse and mother to two beautiful children, Noah and Ellyotte. She enjoys traveling the world, hitting the slopes with her family and making memories at her parents' condominium on the coast of Panama City Beach, Florida, watching her kids splashing in the waves and eating as much seafood as possible. What outsiders may not know about Katie is that she was given a second chance at life through an organ transplant.

More Than Just a Stomach Virus

October 19, 2017, will forever be a day that stands out in Katie's mind. Her family had just moved from Alaska to Maryland a couple of months prior, and she hadn't been feeling well. She was extremely bloated, felt full and nauseated all of the time, and her eyes and skin were yellowing. "I was sleeping as much as I could, was constantly short of breath and had zero energy," Katie said. Like most people, Katie chalked her symptoms up to a nasty stomach virus. On that day in October, Katie was chaperoning her daughter's second-grade field trip, finding herself sitting down frequently to catch her breath. One of the other moms on the trip noticed how similar Katie's symptoms were to her husband's, who had been admitted to the hospital for possible kidney transplantation and urged Katie to seek care immediately. Upon returning to the school, Katie called her husband to tell him to pick the kids up from school because she was heading to the ER.

Katie doesn't recall much of her overnight stay at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, other than her doctor telling her that she was being transported to the University of Maryland Medical Center's (UMMC) transplant unit. Shocked and surprised, Katie was driven to Baltimore via ambulance during the dark morning hours of October 20 and admitted indefinitely.

Waiting for New Life

Once admitted to UMMC, she received a crash course in lab work, including what numbers were good and what were bad. She was admitted with a MELD (Model for End-Stage Liver Disease) score, used to stratify severity of end-stage liver disease for transplant planning purposes, of about 20 out of 40. Within a week, her numbers climbed to 30 out of 40. Another week in the hospital passed, and she reached a score of 40 out of 40 - her liver was officially considered failed.

"I had days to live if they could not find a new liver for me. I was not told how long it would take for a liver to become available," Katie explained. "However, with my MELD score being so high and deadly, I was moved to the top of the recipient list and the first available matching blood-type liver would become mine. How long that would take, I did not know."

In addition to being in end-stage liver failure, her heart and kidneys had begun to fail. Katie was told she may possibly need three transplants: heart, kidney and a full liver from a deceased donor with her blood type. Her body was quickly shutting down. Because of her organs' delicate conditions, Katie was not allowed to have any prescription pain medication while awaiting a transplant, so her days and nights were terribly uncomfortable and painful. 

"I was constantly feeling as though I was in a dream; everything from conversations held with and around me to my trying to focus on television or a book to pass the time felt incredibly fuzzy," Katie said. "I felt lonely, scared, and deathly ill, but I was never truly alone in the darkness of my hospital room. I believed in a power greater than myself (for me that is Jesus Christ) and I cried out to Him in my darkest hours."

In those three weeks waiting for a transplant, Katie found comfort in visits from her family and her care team, who would come into her room to hold her hand and pray for her. 

"I never knew their names, and I typically didn't see them again after that," said Katie. "My nurses will never know the impact they had on my life: they brought a peace into my room and calmed my spirit when I felt utterly terrified and alone."

Katie and her husband, Dan, made the decision not to allow their young children to see her in the hospital except for twice under Katie's insistence. Those visits served as a reminder to Katie that she had no choice but to survive. "There were certainly times during her treatment that were scary: her initial transfer from the Emergency Room to the transplant unit in Baltimore; her three-week evaluation prior to surgery; the possibility that she required a liver, kidney and heart transplant, because the condition of her heart and kidneys weren't strong enough to support a massive operation; and the day that the coordinating nurse practitioner recommended I bring our children to the hospital to potentially say goodbye to their mom," said Dan. "However, our faith in God, expert care by the University of Maryland Medical Center Transplant Team, and a series of consecutive miracles enabled Katie's remarkable recovery. 

Hope in the Dark

On November 1, Katie underwent her first dialysis session to remove the fluid from around her failing heart and to recirculate her blood in an effort to kick-start her kidneys. The session was a success, and she was told she no longer needed to receive a heart or kidney transplant. Not long after, Katie's doctors informed her that her insurance had agreed to pay for the entire liver transplant and all associated costs.

"I couldn't stop crying, smiling, praising God, and embracing the relief that I finally felt," Katie exclaimed. "There were tears of joy flowing in that room - about 14 people were stuffed in my tiny hospital room and all of us were celebrating."

Katie's second chance at life finally came on November 13, 2017 when she received the phone call that they had found a match, a high-risk donor's liver.

Choosing to Accept

Despite her donor's status, Katie was informed that because of the severity of her situation, she needed to accept the first liver that became available even if it was considered high-risk. 

"I couldn't fathom that there would be any other answer besides, "YES!" but apparently some transplant patients answer "no" because the fear of the surgery and the unknown is too hard to deal with," Katie explained. "For me, it was black and white: I had decided I would survive, no matter the odds." 

Despite knowing she needed to accept the donation, Katie asked the following questions, she believes anyone about to receive an organ donation should gather the facts to make an informed decision:

  • Has my donor's liver been tested? How many times?
  • How old is my donor? Male or female?
  • Why is the donor considered high-risk? How did my donor pass away?
  • Has my donor's liver been tested? How many times?
  • Did my surgeon approve this donor

Katie's donor was considered high-risk due to lifestyle choices and the manner of death, neither of which affected the organ Katie needed to survive. 

"The best thing I ever did was hang up the phone, pray about my decision, receive peace about it, consult my husband, then call back to my transplant team and accept my new organ," Katie said. "Please realize that if that organ you so desperately need is available to you, you should take it's your transplant team will never knowingly implant a sick organ into your already failing body, so please accept the first offer - high-risk or not - because there may not be a second phone call."

A New Life

Since choosing to accept her new organ, Katie's life is drastically different. First and foremost, she is extremely grateful for a second chance at life and thanks her donor and her donor's family for the incredible gift.

"[While in the hospital], I also spent many nights crying for my donor's family. The best day of my life would be the worst day of theirs," Katie explains. "I used my time alone to pray for them and to pray for my donor."

An important part of Katie's recovery was writing to her donor's family, thanking them for the difficult decision they may have had to make and let them know how much the gift meant to her and her family. Katie now takes a combined 15 different medications to make sure her body doesn't reject her new liver. Also, each Monday, she has four vials of blood drawn and her liver enzymes, medication levels, kidney function and white cell count are all tested. 

"Katie is still recovering, but she's free from the bonds of her illness, and it's evident in her personality, energy and attitude - her body is no longer fighting against itself," explained Dan. "I won't be able to express how thankful I am to have our Katie back - wife, mother and best friend."

She also takes medications that prevent multiple forms of bacteria from attacking her body; folic acid; multi-vitamins; and supplements that aid in absorbing the medication her body now requires.

"No longer do we assume life is a given," said Katie's father, Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. "We value time with each other and we rejoice knowing our Katie will live to see her children and our grandchildren grow up. We also rejoice knowing Katie's testimony promises to save the lives of others."

In addition to being a full-time mom and working full-time from home, Katie has started working with the TRIO Foundation of Maryland and volunteering with the Living Legacy Foundation; both organizations aiding in raising awareness about organ donation. While not every day is easy, Katie has a new lease on life and wants to help educate the public on the importance of organ donation. 

"Donate your blood and plasma at every chance you can! Not only will your tissues save many recipients' lives, you will save many recipient families from being ripped apart due to their loved one dying while awaiting an organ," Katie exclaimed. "You can't take them with you when you die, so be a HERO: be a DONOR."