Kathleen Hawkins

Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen Hawkins has been busy promoting local businesses — and organ donation following a liver transplant in January.

It’s been almost a year since Kathleen Hawkins received news no one wants to hear.

The president and CEO of the Hendersonville Area Chamber of Commerce had known for a couple of years that something wasn’t quite right.

Her weight had dropped dramatically and she often felt sluggish, achy and out of breath.

She consulted a series of doctors who had trouble pinpointing an exact illness but attributed her decline to allergies or some sort of an allergic reaction.

When local nurse practitioner Melanie Lowe diagnosed Hawkins with an autoimmune disorder in January of 2020, she grew hopeful.

“She was the first one who started giving me answers,” Hawkins recalled. “She looked at me and said, ‘Kathleen, you have been sick for so long, you don’t know how long you’ve been sick.”

Lowe had also detected a heart murmur. Hawkins was told that her heart or liver were failing because of toxins in her bloodstream. She wonders now if the toxins weren’t caused by leaking breast implants that were removed in 2019.

By March, her cardiologist and a liver specialist painted a bleak picture — either her heart or her liver would fail her within three to five years.

“They told me I had three to five years to live, but they didn’t know when the clock had started,” she said. “They basically said if you don’t get a new liver you’re going to die.”

Hawkins spent the summer both preparing for the worst and praying and hoping for the best.

On Aug. 12, she was notified that she’d been put on the national liver transplant waiting list.

While she waited, she joined several support groups for information. She learned that for most people, the first call they receive that an organ is available doesn’t always result in a transplant.

“A lot go through dry-runs,” she said. “They call two people, and one of them gets the organ and the other is like sort of a back-up.”

She also grew more and more aware that in order for her to receive a gift that would save her life, someone else would have to lose theirs.

“You don’t have to die to be a liver donor – you can donate a piece of your liver,” she said. “But I didn’t have any immediate family that was a suitable match.”

Hawkins was in the middle of a retreat with the chamber’s board of directors when she received the call she’d been waiting for on Jan. 22.

She had told chamber staff members of her condition, but said the time never seemed right to tell board members – or anyone else in the community.

“I didn’t want to tell someone and have them worry about the future of our chamber,” she said. “Also, I think there was a little bit of… if you talk about it, then it becomes more real. I guess I wasn’t ready for that.”

But once she did receive the call from Vanderbilt University’s transplant team, Hawkins announced she’d be leaving the retreat to receive a new liver.

She prayed with shocked board members and headed north toward Nashville.

When she arrived at 1 p.m., Hawkins was surprised to learn the surgery wouldn’t take place until around 10:30 p.m.

When asked the reason for the delay, the nurse told her that the donor was a patient at Vanderbilt and that the family had decided to take him or her off of life support. They asked to have until 9 p.m. to say goodbye.

“Just the thought of this family – turning tragedy into my future,” she said. “That is a blessing that is unbelievable.”

Just before 10 p.m., Hawkins recalls hearing the anesthesiologist shout, “It’s a go! It’s a go!”

“That’s the last thing I remember,” she said. The surgery lasted five hours.

Hawkins has no memory of the following Saturday or Sunday but knows that by Tuesday she was off of all pain medications except Tylenol. On Wednesday — just four days after transplant surgery — she was sent home.

In true fashion, the chamber of commerce president had a parting gift for the nurse who wheeled her from the intensive care unit to her car.

“She said that she was renting a place in Franklin, and that she was looking for a place with good schools,” said Hawkins. “So, of course I suggested she look at Sumner County. I made Jeff fish around in our car for a relocation packet to give her.”

While the first 90 days following a transplant is the riskiest for rejection, she continues to receive good follow-up reports from her doctors.

A month after her transplant, she’s been working from home – often on Zoom calls for hours at a time. Most recently, she’s been promoting the chamber’s new Thrive in 37075 campaign.

Hawkins has also been sharing her own story and says she’s been surprised by how much it has resonated with people.

“I’m in awe of some of the responses I’ve gotten,” she says. “I’ve received over a dozen messages from people in Middle Tennessee with loved ones awaiting a transplant or inspired to be donors because of sharing my story.”

Hawkins urges anyone who can to become an organ donor.

“Transplants are more common than people realize,” she said. “There are so many people waiting for this gift just like I was.”

She’s already been contacted by the American Liver Foundation who has asked her to speak at an upcoming event.

“I’m excited to have a chance to share my story,” she said. “I definitely think God had his hand in this.”

Hawkins said she’s also grateful for the support she’s received from the Hendersonville community.

“The outpouring of love and prayers, in-kind donations, meals and flowers has been overwhelming,” she said. “This community is truly one of a kind. I am blessed to call it home.”

Facts about organ donation

109,000+ — number of men, women and children on the national transplant waiting list as of Sept. 2020

39,718 – transplants performed in 2019

17 – people die each day waiting for an organ

Every 9 minutes another person is added to the organ transplant waiting list

1 organ donor can save 8 lives

To register to become an organ donor in Tennessee, go to www.donatelifetn.org/donor/create

Or go to www.bethegifttoday.com

- Source: Organdonor.gov