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Stories of hope

Kathryn Smith of Miami, FL

Kathryn Smith

My story begins my junior year of high school. I was always a healthy child but I suddenly became severely ill at the young age of 17 when doctors diagnosed me with idiopathic autoimmune hepatitis that had left me with only 25% liver function and determined that I would require a transplant in the next two years, or face imminent death. In the meantime, I underwent a TIPS procedure, placement of a shunt to redirect blood flow through my scarred liver. I returned to high school where I graduated in 1997 and set off to start my college career.

Shortly after beginning my freshman year, the shunt became blocked and my name was placed on the liver transplant list. After several false alarms, I was wheeled into surgery for my first liver transplant in November 1998, after being summoned from my sorority formal dance for the procedure. I was 19 years old. After only 4 hours of surgery, I was awake and ready to get back to my normal life. However, I soon developed severe pain and was found to have developed a clot in the main artery supplying my liver and was told I would require a second liver transplant. I was wheeled back into surgery in December 1998 where doctors discovered that I had developed a clot in the main artery to my small intestine. My parents were told that I had less than 24 hours to live. After some research, our insurance company decided to transfer me to another transplant center in another state, one well known for their success with multi-organ transplants.

Little did I know that I would not awaken until January 1999. And not only would I awaken in a strange place- but that I would soon be told that I would require not only another liver, but also a stomach, pancreas, kidney, and small intestine.

I awoke with a tracheostomy, so I could not speak. I was battling intense infection in my abdomen, which had to clear so that I could receive the transplant that would save my life. In June, it became apparent that an immediate end was not in sight. My mother rented a local apartment and left her job to be by my side. In July, my condition took a turn for the worse and now with infection, fever, bleeding, on dialysis, and dependent on mechanical ventilation, it was not expected that good news would come so soon. On August 25, 1999, 8 months after my arrival, a donor was found. My family, while relieved, understood that this unimaginable gift came as a great loss to another family. I received all 5 organs in a grueling 22-hour surgery requiring 100 pints of blood. My surgeon later told my parents I was the sickest patient on which he had ever operated.

It is hard to describe how long and arduous my recovery process was. Imagine having to relearn how to sit up, how to walk, how to speak, how to eat, how to just breathe, all the things each of us take for granted. Each day brought a new challenge and many times, I did not think that I would ever make it outside the confines of the hospital.

Thanks to the overwhelming support of family, friends, and even strangers I managed to keep my head up and finally, after 8 long months in the intensive care unit and even more on the transplant floor- I was released from the hospital in May 2000. I returned home in October 2000, 20 months after my initial arrival. 20 months…I missed 4 semesters of college, 2 birthdays, 2 Christmases.

I returned to college in August 2001. I proudly graduated with highest honors with a degree in Psychology in December 2003. I went on to obtain my medical doctor degree in May 2009. I am now completing my final year of residency. I hope that I can be the doctor who will make a difference in the lives of my own patients, just like my doctors did for me.

I am able to share my story because of organ donors and their families who decided to give the gift of life in their saddest hours. I have been given the opportunity to achieve my lifelong dream of becoming a physician…I am able to laugh with my friends…. I am able to complain about mundane irritations in everyday life. I have been afforded another chance at life…. a chance to make my future count.

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