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New heart gave Columbus resident a 5-year lease on life

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Katie McBurnett sits in a tree November 2007 at Mill Race Park. She wears a hooded sweatshirt that she designed herself.
Katie McBurnett sits in a tree November 2007 at Mill Race Park. She wears a hooded sweatshirt that she designed herself. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Katie McBurnett shows off her T-shirt and her 21st birthday cake in September 2012.
Katie McBurnett shows off her T-shirt and her 21st birthday cake in September 2012. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Katie McBurnett did a lot of living in a short time — right up until the end.

The part-time Columbus and Hanover resident, a student at Hanover College, found the strength to pull her weakened body out of bed Aug. 25 for her brother’s wedding.

A few weeks later, she still was feeling lousy physically but excited mentally when she celebrated her 21st birthday Sept. 10 with close friends and family.

Eight days later, however, Katie died at her home in Columbus of complications from a 2007 heart transplant.

About organ donation

Last year, almost 29,000 lives in the United States were saved through organ transplants.

More than 110,000 people, including more than 1,500 Indiana residents, are waiting for life-saving organ transplants.

Every 10 minutes, a person is added to the transplant waiting list.

Success rates for vital organs average 85 percent, and more than 90 percent for various types of tissue transplants.

Anyone, regardless of age, can be considered as organ donors.

People who want to become an organ donor can do so through the Indiana Donor Registry at Or, register when you renew or update your driver’s license at a local Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The Columbus office is at 745 Schnier Drive.

Source: Indiana Organ Procurement Organization

In the weeks since, Katie’s parents, Mike and Judy McBurnett, have cried a lot, laughed a little and found time to remember their daughter for the young woman she had become.

But Katie’s zest for life, love for others and passion for important causes are memories that, for them, will live on.

“If she befriended you, you were in for life,” Mike McBurnett said. “If you needed anything, she was there. So many people at the funeral service stopped to talk about how Katie had touched them.”

The first inkling of serious health issues began with a 103-degree fever in 2006 that eventually led to X-rays that showed Katie’s heart had grown to three times its normal size and was functioning at only about 20 percent.

Doctors started her treatment with a heart pump. When that didn’t shrink the heart, as the physicians had hoped, they performed the transplant thanks to a donor’s perfect match.

Katie did a lot with that heart.

Four years after moving to Columbus, she graduated with her 2010 class at Columbus North High School.

Embracing her good fortune to be a transplant recipient, Katie won gold, silver and bronze medals in the Transplant Olympics in Pittsburgh.

She started college in the hope of becoming a pediatric psychologist.

She mentored young people at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

She made friends, lots of them.

And she became a passionate advocate for organ donation.

In October 2010, Katie’s transplanted heart began to reject her body, spurring a new flurry of medical activity that Mike McBurnett sees now was the beginning of the end.

Doctors started her on intensive medicines in an effort to get her transplanted heart to accept the body again, but her father explained that side effects included a weakened immune system and painful stomach issues.

Katie, who felt bad about the high cost of treatments and medications and the financial stress the cost was putting on her parents, went back to college in 2011. She got through a semester before withdrawing for another leave of absence. She returned for a week, only to have to leave school again.

“I can’t imagine what went through her head,” Judy McBurnett said. “She always put on a strong face because she didn’t want us to worry.”

Judy McBurnett was there when her daughter died. It was a possibility that the McBurnetts never would allow themselves to consider.

Now, they are taking the emotional recovery process one day at a time as they write thank-you notes to more than 500 people who attended their daughter’s Sept. 23 funeral in Madison.

During an interview with The Republic, Judy McBurnett recalled times she and her daughter would giggle with each other. That was typical on days when Katie was feeling good.

More than anything, however, her mother recognizes that Katie was a daddy’s girl, a fact that became evident to nurses when they caught Mike McBurnett feeding Katie in her hospital room.

Kay Stokes, Katie’s academic adviser and disability services coordinator at Hanover College, said Katie had an incredible sense of humor and ability to connect with younger people. She remembered the time that her 11-year-old daughter asked Katie why she was progressing so slowly through campus.

Katie’s reply?

Her medical issues were making her accumulate credits more slowly than if she were healthy and not missing any classes or homework.

“Katie said she’s like a slow turtle. She’ll go slow, but she’s going to get there in the end,” Stokes recalled.

Chris McBurnett, Katie’s older brother, said it meant the world to him when Katie managed to attend his wedding less than a month before her death. The last time he saw her was at her 21st birthday.

“I have some text messages and one from the night before she passed,” he said. “Something about if I’m going to come to the house I should go through the garage.”

It was an ordinary message from an extraordinary sister. But what made it special is that it was among the final communications Chris McBurnett would have with her.

Karie Bollmer, a junior at Hanover, said she and Katie became students at the same time at the college in fall 2010 and eventually became great friends. She said one of her favorite memories was pulling all-nighters at the dorm, when Katie would hit her with tossed spice-drop candies to keep her awake.

But there was also a serious side to their friendship. Katie provided much-needed emotional support when Bollmer’s brother died in a January car accident.

“I’ve been going through grief this whole year,” Bollmer said.

Judy McBurnett said she hopes more than anything that her daughter’s passion about organ donation saves lives. Katie designed a hooded sweatshirt that says “Donate Life” on the front and gives some statistics about organ donation on the back. The girl was bothered that people generally have no idea green is the ribbon color for organ donation awareness.

After 21 years with her, Katie’s parents are struggling with the idea of being without her.

“The first day after she died I woke up in the middle of the night to check on Katie, because I always had before,” Mike McBurnett said.

Judy McBurnett added, “Every morning when you wake up, you have to accept it all over again.”

The good memories, however, make it just slightly easier to bear.

McBurnett’s journey

December 2006

Katie McBurnett awoke with a 103-degree fever, takes a few Tylenol and goes back to bed.

January 2007

Doctors perform X-rays and find that Katie’s heart has grown to three times its normal size and is functioning at about 20 percent of capacity. Doctors implant a heart pump.

February 2007

Katie gets a heart transplant and begins to live a fairly normal life.

October 2010

Katie’s heart begins to reject her body. Doctors give her medicine and treatments in the hope of getting the heart to accept the body again, but it causes side effects.

September 2011

Katie returns to Hanover College for an entire semester.

August 2012

Katie attends her brother Chris’ wedding. His wife Britney is good friends with Katie and helps give Katie massages.

September 2012

Katie celebrates her 21st birthday Sept. 10, having designed the cake herself. But on Sept. 18, she succumbs to complications from the transplant.

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