Student Survives Rare Five-Organ Transplant to Graduate with Highest Honors, Astronaut John Young to Address Graduates

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Astronaut and alumnus John Young will deliver the addresses at the Georgia Institute of Technology's 217th commencement ceremony on Saturday, December 13, at 9 a.m. at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Approximately 1,450 students are expected to get their degree.

Young received his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering in 1952. Since then, he has dedicated his entire professional life to the pursuit of perfecting spaceflight as a tool for the advancement of humankind.

Associate director (technical) of NASA's Johnson Space Center since 1996, Young is responsible for technical, operational and safety oversight of all NASA programs and activities assigned to the center. As an active astronaut, he remains eligible to command future shuttle astronaut crews.

Young's NASA career began in 1962 when he was selected as an astronaut. His first flight was with Astronaut Gus Grissom aboard Gemini 3 in 1965. He subsequently served as commander of Gemini 10 in 1966 and as command module pilot of Apollo 10 in 1969.

In 1972, Young served as spacecraft commander for Apollo 16, a lunar exploration mission. Young made aeronautical history in 1981 as spacecraft commander of the first flight of the space shuttle, the orbiter Columbia. Columbia was also the first winged re-entry vehicle to return from space to a runway landing.

Two years after the Columbia flight, Young served as spacecraft commander of the first Spacelab mission, whose six-man crew performed more than 70 experiments. The mission returned more scientific and technical data than all the previous Apollo and Skylab missions combined.

Altogether, Young has logged more than 14,000 hours of flying time in props, jets, helicopters, rocket jets and spacecraft, including 835 hours in six space flights. Administrative appointments with NASA include chief of the Space Shuttle Branch of the Astronaut Office, chief of the Astronaut Office, and special assistant to the director of Johnson Space Center for Engineering, Operations and Safety.

Prior to joining NASA, Young was a test pilot in the U.S. Navy. His test projects included evaluations of the Crusader and Phantom fighter weapons systems. In 1962, he set world time-to-climb records to 3,000-meter and 25,000-meter altitudes in the Phantom. Young retired from the Navy as a captain in 1976, concluding 25 years of active military service.

Young has received numerous honors. These include the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, three NASA Distinguished Service Medals, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and Outstanding Achievement Medal, NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals and three Navy Distinguished Flying Crosses. Young has also received the Georgia Tech Distinguished Young Alumni Award, Distinguished Alumni Service Award and the Exceptional Engineering Achievement Award.

Six Years and Seven Organ Transplants Later, Student Graduates with High Honors

When Kathryn Smith enrolled at Georgia Tech in the fall of 1997, she knew the road to graduation wouldn't be easy, but she had no idea she would have to struggle for her life. After just her first week at Tech, complications from a liver disease forced her to spend two weeks in intensive care. After her first year, she underwent a liver transplant. The next month she had another transplant and lapsed into a coma. Eight months later she endured a rare five-organ transplant involving her small intestine, liver, pancreas, kidney and stomach. Her doctors didn't expect her to live, but Smith fought for her life. On Saturday, she's not only graduating with a bachelor's degree in psychology, she's doing so with highest honors.

"I didn't think I would get through it," said Smith. "You hope you just get out of the hospital first and then you just hope you can walk. It helped me more than anything to come back here [to Tech], because it forces you to do things, rather than sitting around," she said.

Now Smith is applying to medical school. "I've always wanted to be a doctor, but this experience has strengthened my desire," she said. "I think I can bring something unique because I've been on the other side of it."

Smith's ordeal began when she was still in high school. In 1996, she was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, a disease that causes the immune system to destroy the liver. With her liver functioning at 50 percent of capacity, she enrolled at Georgia Tech in the fall of 1997. The day after she got her bid from her sorority, she passed out and spent the next two weeks in intensive care at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where she was placed on a transplant list. She finished up her first year at college and was beginning the next one when she got the call that a liver had become available.

After the surgery, she thought she was in the clear. "I remember waking up and thinking that was easy. It was almost too easy," she said. Within a week of the operation, the liver failed, weakened by a blocked artery.

In December 1998, a month later, Smith had a second transplant, which was plagued by complications. Her intestines began to shut down. When the doctors told her parents she had just 24 hours to live, they gathered their friends and family for a prayer vigil at the hospital. Whether it was the hospital, prayer or the love of her family and friends; she doesn't know. She spent the next month unconscious but alive.

Smith's ordeal wasn't over. The next few months would be filled with infections that not only made another transplant impossible but also threatened her life. Again, her doctors predicted she wouldn't make it.

"The doctors said there was nothing more they could do. Then my Mom asked about an intestinal transplant," Smith said.

She not only needed a new liver but also a small intestine, kidney, pancreas and stomach. In January 1999, she was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for an operation that had only been performed 11 times before.

It took until August for the infections to clear up enough to allow her to undergo the five-organ transplant. She was so weak that the doctors only gave her a 50 percent chance of surviving the 21-hour surgery. Again, she beat the odds, but things would get much worse before they got better. She spent the next nine months in the hospital battling infection after infection. Drugged and exhausted, Kathryn began to experience hallucinations and depression.

"I woke up and had no idea where I was. I couldn't walk. I couldn't sit up. You take all that stuff for granted," she said.

She finally went home in October 2000 and spent a year recuperating. Her parents' support, Smith said, was critical to her recovery. "My mom made me keep little goal cards that said 'sit up for three hours, walk to the end of the bed.'"

Smith took a few classes at Augusta State before returning to Tech in August 2001. Now that she's graduating, medical school is her next challenge. It won't be easy. She still has to take medication to suppress her immune system to keep her body from rejecting the organs. That's not going to stop her. "If I always stopped when people said I couldn't do it, I wouldn't be here," Smith said.

Kathryn Smith is active in the Georgia Transplant Foundation and LifeLink, a nonprofit organ and tissue recovery organization. She returns to Miami every three months for medical checkups and to visit other transplant patients.



  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Matthew Nagel
  • Created: 12/11/2003
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016


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