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July 17, 2013

Cullman woman battles back from heart transplant

In the South it is common to hear the phrase, “Bless her heart.” We say it when someone has a baby, “Oh, how precious, bless her heart!” or when someone dies “Oh, bless his heart, he was a good man” or when someone does something especially nice or good, or unusual, “Why, bless your heart, you didn’t have to do that!”

It can mean a myriad of things, but only occasionally does it mean, “God bless her heart” meaning her real, beating heart.

In the case of Kathy Dale McLeroy, that’s exactly what it means, literally.

It’s been a long journey for the petite lady who normally sits in the corner office in the front room of The Cullman Times. You’ll remember her….she always has a smile on her face and a soft, “Hi, how are you?” for everyone.

Kathy is a fixture at The Cullman Times. She came to work here 34 years ago, at the age of 18, fresh out of Fairview High School.

Co-worker Debbie Miller remembers her as a shy, slightly naïve young girl with a sense of humor, who never met a stranger. The two became fast friends.

“From the very beginning of our friendship I realized that she had the biggest heart,” recalls Miller. “She trusts and likes everyone, and if there is ever a need in the building she has always been the first to ask how she can help.”

She often noticed that Kathy would quietly take it upon herself to see that someone’s children had Christmas money, or help to take care of someone’s bills. “She is just that type of person,” said Miller.

Not long after coming to work at the paper, Kathy met the love of her life, Randy McLeroy. They began dating and in just a short while, he won her heart and they got married. She was 19 at the time. Life was good — there should have been nothing but smooth sailing and blue skies ahead for them.

Kathy also gave her heart to his son, Zachery; being his mom was one of the most important roles in her life. From the very beginning she loved him as if he was her own.

Kathy threw herself into the role of new wife and mom the way she does everything she undertakes — with both feet. She was good at it just like she is with everything she tackles.

One day, within a few months of her marriage, Kathy felt a little sluggish. Her first thought was that it was just a cold, probably, or maybe the flu.

But her symptoms didn’t abate, in fact she got worse. At first her doctors couldn’t pinpoint what was causing her worsening symptoms, but when a lump started to grow in her neck, it became obvious that this was something more than a cold or a virus.

Miller and other co-workers recall that it seemed to get bigger with each passing day.

“Finally,” says Kathy’s sister-in-law, Cathy James, “they diagnosed it as a goiter.”

 It would take another two years before they finally determined that Kathy’s problem was Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer. “Studies and treatments back in the early 1980s were much less advanced than they are today,” explained James. “Kathy had to go to UAB for treatments each day. She received much higher doses of radiation than allowed nowadays to try to stop the dreaded deadly disease.”

James often took Kathy for treatments. “Many mornings as we would be on the way from the radiation treatments at UAB, Kathy would be in a hurry to get to work saying there was so much to be done and talking about a need in the town while asking me to pull over because she was sick,” recalls James. “I would try to talk her out of going to work for awhile but she would have nothing to do with it. She always said, ‘I need to get a few things done then Randy can come and get me’.”

Miller was devastated to learn that her friend, who was only in her early 20s, had cancer. “I wondered what would happen,” she said.” How would someone so young with a child handle cancer? I shouldn’t have worried, though,” she smiled. “She told us that she would beat this thing and she did — without missing very much work.”

Kathy, who is what our grandmothers would have called “delicate,” took on radiation and chemotherapy like the trooper she is. She met the challenge, and she beat the odds, which were definitely not in her favor.

By 1988, she surprised everyone again, even her physicians, by giving birth to a daughter, Brittany, something the doctors had told her was impossible. The McLeroys were ecstatic.

Once again, their lives were back on track. The young couple did all the things that everyone does, they worked hard, played together, built a life and a home for their children.

Kathy realized there was a need for more research and education and that because she held a key position working for the paper, she could do what she could to try to get the news out in order to help others with similar situations.

In an effort to help others who were going through what she had experienced, Kathy became instrumental in starting the annual Relay For Life special sections in The Cullman Times to educate people about the event and promote involvement. She volunteered for the Relay For Life, and served on its Executive Board for several years. At that time the Cullman Relay was nationally recognized and was one of the biggest success stories in the state. The annual event includes a walk with memorial luminaries, which Kathy was involved in, and many other various activities. Kathy was honored to have been one of the 10-year survivors speakers at the Relay For Life Event, and was filled with gratitude to have won the 2001 Life Inspiration Award.

But then the unthinkable happened — again.

This time it reared its ugly head in the form of breast cancer. Kathy was advised that she would need a double mastectomy and that she would once again have to go through chemo. “How can this be happening to her again?” Miller remembers thinking.

Kathy reminded them that she had beat cancer once before and she was determined to beat it again.

This time, however, the radiation and chemo began to take a toll on her frail body. One day while attending a Red Cross board meeting, she began to feel odd. She didn’t realize it right away, but she was in the midst of a massive heart attack.

Due to the quick actions of her fellow board members she was immediately transported to Cullman Regional Medical Center, where she was evaluated and sent straight to Birmingham for emergency open heart surgery.

She was flown to Trinity Hospital and was in intensive for several weeks. Once again, Kathy was fighting for her life. She told James (who is like a sister to her because they have been there for each other through the ups and downs) that even at that time she knew that God had more for her (Kathy McLeroy) to do — that He was going to bring her through.

And He did.

However, now 45 years of age, it seemed that all she had been through — the cancer and subsequent treatments had weakened her heart, the heart that had expanded to include her family, friends and co-workers. The heart that had responded to those in need, the heart that always felt love and compassion for everyone in the community, friends and strangers alike, was simply worn out.

Due to the slow diagnosis Kathy’s condition was complicated and the trauma she had been through had caused irreversible damage along with much pain, suffering and financial burdens.

Tests showed that Kathy’s heart was only working at minimum capacity. Her friends wondered how she could take anymore stress.

But, Kathy has a strong will, and a fighter’s spirit. She came back to work much weaker than before, but still somehow found the strength to come to show up with a smile on her face. Unbeknownst to most people, she struggled with fluid around her heart, and often found it hard to walk even a short distance at a time.

But she was intent on living the best life that she could under the circumstances, and she never wanted piety, never asked for people to make concessions for her, never whined or asked why this was happening to her. She just kept on putting one foot in front of the other – one day at a time.

By now she had two grandchildren, Miles and Alexa, whom she adored. She longed to be able to run and play with them, but found it a day- by- day challenge just to get dressed.

Her doctor told her that her heart was as good as it was ever going to be, and that her body was not strong enough to keep the fluid from forming around it. He recommended that she see a group of doctors who would evaluate the best course of action for her.

The doctors couldn’t do much except to change a few medications. “They continued to say that I would not be a candidate for a heart transplant,” said Kathy. “Oh but guess what? One day I saw a new doctor who had been in charge of heart transplants for 10 years at UAB. He had just transferred to the cardiovascular group to work with difficult ‘end- stage’ cases like mine. He had good news! He felt that I would be worth sending for the work-up and possibly be a candidate for a heart.”

After discussing the situation from all angles, the medical team agreed to place Kathy on the transplant list. They explained from the very beginning that the odds were not in her favor, the list was long, and that for most organs there would be at least two other people called in to the hospital to determine who would be the most perfect match for the heart.

In most cases, a heart transplant would solve the problem, but in Kathy’s case, with her medical history, it was a risk. However, once again, they underestimated Kathy McLeroy’s determination.

Her prognosis was complicated by the fact that they had to figure out how to keep her alive until such time as a heart became available. It didn’t look good…

But we all know that sometimes, when doctors don’t hold out much hope, God works His best miracles.

In a constant battle to overcome all these obstacles, Kathy continued to grow closer in her relationship with God, to focus on Him, her family and her job, knowing that she worked at a place where she had the chance to get positive stories out to the public. “Her hope and desire was to educate the public about the different illnesses out there that are being misdiagnosed and about those who need our help and prayers,” said James. “By December 2012, Kathy had gotten to the point where she could not lay down to rest or walk very far due to fluid around the heart and lungs and was in a very weak state.”

In January of this year, Kathy finally, for the first time, had to go on a medical leave from work. She began to take long and extensive tests in preparation for the transplant which sapped what little strength she had in reserve. The testing lasted for weeks, almost every day she was poked, prodded, pinched, stuck, bled, or scanned.

It would be four months before the call came early one morning. The date was May 14, 2013. She and Randy arrived at UAB knowing that there was a chance that she would be one of several people who desperately needed a heart, however, God didn’t overlook one thing in her case — she was the only one there that day.

“God had provided, like He had so many times before,” said Miller. “By 10 a.m. that day, Kathy was in surgery getting a new heart.”

“Praise be to God, those four months were like a whirlwind,” described Kathy. “Things were just put in motion. Right on time the final tests were completed. I had just passed them when I got the call that there was a heart.

“From the moment the decision was made for me to go on the list, I had a peace about it,” she said confidently. “I never even thought that my body might reject the new heart, I just knew that God was going to take care of it.”

“It’s been a long journey,” said Miller, in retrospect. “I have seen her as a person who never questioned why, but always trusted that God would never give her more than she could handle.”

Miller, like most Christians, believes firmly that God places people in the lives of those who need them so that they can learn from them daily and says that this is exactly what she has learned from Kathy McLeroy. “Pray, love and laugh,” she says. “I am among many others who are better for having her in our lives.”

Kathy says God has been with her through all of this and that there are always lessons to learn if we only stop and take the time. “I had my own timetable made out, but it was not God’s,” she said, humbled. “Now I have just learned to ‘let go and let God’. I pray that I won’t miss anything He has for me to do. He has been so good to me.

“Probably the most valuable lesson I can share with anyone is that I have learned to prioritize,” said McLeroy. “Priority is a thing of life not something to do as with a task for work or home. Priority is God and family, then work and other things are a balance to be made following the top priorities.

“Life is short, and so uncertain,” she emphasized. “I could not have made it without the support of my family and friends. I pray for each of you, and thank you so much for being my support team.

“This has been a journey,” said Kathy. “And it’s not over. It continues on.”

“And now we need your help,” Miller explained. “Everything comes with a cost and her new heart is no exception. Please give from your heart to her heart.”

A benefit singing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, July 22, 2013. “Straight From The Heart” benefit singing at Wallace State Student Center Auditorium. Tickets are on sale now at The Cullman Times, Woodland Village Healthcare, Sandra's Tax Service and Doug Doggett Jewelers.

 

You may make donations at Regions Bank

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