Troy University officials and students paused on Wednesday to commemorate Donate Life Month, a month-long awareness campaign stressing the importance of organ donation.
Students from TROY’s School of Nursing and other disciplines within the University’s College of Health and Human Services shared information about organ donation with passers-by on the University’s main quad to help spread awareness about the need for organ donors and the process of giving the gift of life to those in need of transplants.
Later in the day, activities took on a more personal tone about the impact of organ donation during a special ceremony in front of John R. Lewis Hall.
After thanking Dr. John Garner, Dean of the College of Health and Human Services, Dr. Wade Forehand, Director of the School of Nursing, and other leaders and students from the college for their work to organize the event, TROY Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. shared the impact that organ donation has had in his own family.
In 2017, Katie Hawkins Beall, the oldest daughter of Dr. Hawkins and Troy First Lady Mrs. Janice Hawkins, received a liver transplant.
“On a personal level, our daughter, about six years ago, became very, very sick. It was in November of that year that she received a liver transplant,” Dr. Hawkins said. “One of the longest days of our lives was when we walked into the hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where she was only to be told by the physician in charge there that she needed two transplants, not on a liver but also a heart. I never thought I would be relieved when I was told that my daughter needed only one transplant, but indeed, one is better than two. It is because of a donor that that young woman still lives today and has a healthy and productive life ahead of her. It is a very personal issue in my family.”
Beall, who was unable to attend Wednesday ceremony in person, shared thoughts on her journey that were read by School of Nursing faculty member Lauren Kilcrease.
After making the move from Alaska to the Washington, D.C. area due to an Air Force transfer, Beall became ill, suffering from extreme exhaustion, bloating, and yellowing of the eyes and skin.
“I was admitted in October to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s transplant unit in critical condition,” she said in her written remarks. “I was in total heart, liver and kidney failure and I was getting worse by the hour.”
In spite of the critical nature of her illness, Beall said death was not in her thoughts and was simply not an option.
“I had kids to parent, places to travel with my husband and memories to make with my nieces and nephews to come. All of my transplant doctors agreed that based on my bloodwork, I would need all three organs to be transplanted. While I waited for my organs, I was placed on dialysis and miraculously my heart went from 20 percent infraction to 40 percent and my kidneys began operating again. Only my liver had died, but without a liver, one cannot survive. I was in the full transition of life to death.”
Beall recalled the wonderful ICU nurses that helped her through that difficult time as she literally teetered on death’s door.
“At night, in the ICU, I had the most amazing, spirit-filled nurses visit me. It was in those hours, knowing that death was before me, that I wept quietly. And, it was in those hours that my precious nurses sat by my side with their hands on me and quietly prayed life over me,” she recalled.
Once USAF active-duty health insurance declared they would fully cover her transplant for the rest of her life, Beall was immediately listed as the most critical transplant patient in the nation.
“As I waited in those critical days for my miracle, one of my doctors came in and said ‘you need to say goodbye to your kids and husband now. Within the next 12 hours, based on your numbers, you will be in a coma and you or your family will not want to see you that way.’ With every fiber in my dying body, I shook my head no. I wouldn’t say goodbye,” she shared. “My doctor looked at my mom, and as she sat their eating ice cream she said, ‘Nope, Katie will survive and go on to do amazing things. My doctor left, bewildered, as somehow, we still believed in miracles.”
That miracle would come less than three days later when Beall was informed that there was a donor who was a perfect match.
“Within less than three days, I was informed that a 32-year-old female had overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl, but she was a perfect match for me as a donor,” she said in her remarks. “She was the soul I had been praying for as I hung between the valley of life and death. I said yes and accepted a high-risk organ.”
Life since the transplant hasn’t always been easy, Beall admitted.
“Since being at death’s door and experiencing what it means to have your ability to live and function taken away from you, I have learned to accept the things I cannot change and to literally live in the moment,” she said. “Life hasn’t been easy since Nov. 14, 2017. I have suffered bouts of organ rejection that have landed me back on the transplant floor in the hospital, tremendous survivor’s guilt, depression and denial and I suffer daily from debilitating symptoms from the kidney failure I once had, but my life is still mine because someone, once upon a time, signed her driver’s license to be an organ donor and I give all the glory to God.”
Beall said she hoped her story would inspire others would take the step to “donate life.”
“Look at Dr. and Mrs. Hawkins and my sister, Dr. Kelly Hawkins Godwin, and know they walked this horrifying walk alongside of me, fearing the worst but believing in miracles,” she said. “They had never been forced to think of the whole ‘Donate Life’ concept before it was forced upon them. They trusted that this whole process would work, and it did. I am still here and I’m ever so grateful. Let yourself become a hero because in my book, there is no greater gift that one can give another than the gift of life.”
Still another member of the Troy University family has a personal perspective on organ donation. Dr. Kelly Berwager took the podium on Wednesday to share about her experience as a living donor.
Berwager, a lecturer in the University Department of Art and Design since 2013, donated a kidney in 2014.
“Back in 2014, I felt like the Lord told me that I needed to donate a kidney,” she said, noting that a friend was in need of a transplant. “I went through the process, and I kept feeling led to do it. In the Bible, James says we are not only supposed to listen to the word of God, but we are supposed to do something about it, so I thought I was just following directions. Ultimately, I went through several months of testing and I was not a match for my friend, which devastated me.”
While she wasn’t a match for her friend, doctors at the University of Alabama Birmingham Medical Center encouraged her to move forward in the process.
“Going forward in the process and putting your name on the registry to be a donor actually makes the pool of donors bigger. By me going forward in the process, my friend would have a better chance of getting a kidney from someone else,” she said.
After moving forward in the donation process, Berwager would become a donor and now she and the recipient of her kidney are good friends. She even has an alert on her phone for the 11th day of each month because the transplant took place on Dec. 11.
“We got to meet a few days after the surgery and that was awesome because donors don’t always get to meet the recipients,” she said. “We are now part of the longest kidney chain in the world. We actually broke the (record for the longest) streak because we were donor and recipient number 31. There are now over 200 successful transplants in that chain.”
Berwager said organ donation is a big decision and she encourages those who are considering becoming involved in the process to do their homework. Still, she encourages others to consider becoming organ donors because of the life-changing impact it has on others.
“It is a personal decision. It is a big ask. The life-changing and life-saving effect that had on my recipient was astronomical and I still can’t grasp that,” she said. “She still to this day says ‘thank you, thank you for giving me a kidney.’”
In 2018, Berwager shared her story in the book “Bridge Donor: The Journey of a Living Organ Donor.”
As Wednesday’s ceremony ended, students from the School of Nursing were joined by Dr. Hawkins in displaying a “Donate Life” flag.
The University will continue its recognition of Donate Life Month on April 26 as the College of Health and Human Services welcomes Ann Rayburn of Legacy of Hope to campus. Rayburn will speak about the importance of organ donation and the process of becoming a registered donor from noon to 1 p.m. in Hawkins Hall room 122.
To learn more about organ donation or to register to be a donor, visit www.legacyofhope.org, Alabama’s Organ and Tissue Donation Alliance.