MARYVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/Gray News) – When Kathryn Norris crossed the stage to get her diploma at Maryville College over the weekend, they were the final steps of a long walk – ones she had to fight for her life to take.
Her journey at Maryville College began in 2014.
“Right out of the bat I started getting really involved in the college, being in the choir ... the dance team,” Norris said.
What her classmates couldn’t see was her growing inner struggle. Norris had cystic fibrosis, a chronic genetic disorder that makes it harder to breathe over time.
“I got to a point where I was burning 70 percent of my calories into breathing,” Norris said.
By her junior year, her CF was making it too hard to walk from her car to her classroom.
“My lung function completely dropped, and that’s when I was told I probably needed a double lung transplant,” she said.
Norris was going to need a liver and double lung transplant.
Her dad quit his job so they could move to North Carolina ahead of the surgery.
But it was a waiting game.
All the organs had to come from the same donor, and the surgery required months of rehab before the procedure.
“I just waited eight months for the right lungs to come,” said Norris. “I was 24 hours on oxygen. It was miserable.”
Throughout the six hours of daily rehab, Norris kept up with her design school homework from the hospital bed.
“The first thing I got as a message from her was, ‘I’m going to come back and finish this. This is my intent,’" her art and design professor Adrienne Schwarte said. “She was so steadfast and focused about that.”
Her transplant surgery was a success.
And after spending a few months recovering, Norris and her family moved back to East Tennessee so she could finish her degree.
“I am really thankful for my donor and everything. because it opened my eyes to what I am actually passionate about in life,” she said. “I want to help other people, too. I want to help other people in this position.”