Changing Hearts

woman in pink shirt with hands making a heartAt 27 years old, Software Analyst Kathy’s life changed forever. After a month of fatigue and flu-like symptoms, the then-elementary school teacher was shocked to discover she had developed cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease that can lead to heart failure. She needed a heart transplant.

Suddenly, Kathy's days of educating children were replaced by hospital stays. She underwent open-heart surgery for a left ventricular assist device to help her body pump blood as she waited for her transplant.

“It helped save my life and heal my organs," Kathy said. "However, it meant that I was bedridden for months and I had to re-learn how to stand and walk.”

After six months, a heart became available in June 2018. The transplant operation was a success but resulted in major life changes for Kathy post-transplant, including bariatric surgery and more frequent exercise. Kathy was also more susceptible to germs, making work as a teacher no longer viable.

From Elementary School Teacher to a STEM Career

As Kathy left her career in education, she embarked on her journey to a STEM career, earning a degree in computer information sciences from Eastern Florida State College.

The daughter of engineers, Kathy had long held an interest in a STEM career path, she said. Plus, living near Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral — with its storied history — made entering the aerospace and technology field a good fit.

“One person can potentially save more than 75 lives as a donor.”

— Kathy, Software Analyst

“There are a lot of opportunities on the Space Coast of Florida in this field,” she said.

She’d heard good things about Northrop Grumman from her brother — a Northrop Grumman engineer — and she joined the company in 2021 as an associate software development analyst in Melbourne, Florida.

Today, Kathy is using the company’s EdAssist program to earn a master's degree in engineering management.

“Northrop Grumman is a great place to grow and develop, and I’m happy to be here as I continue my journey and make new connections,” said Kathy, who focuses on high-performance computing in her current role.

Path Forward

Walking became a respite as she healed from her transplant and made her career change, Kathy said. She found community through her involvement with the Start TODAY Walking Club, a national walking group created by Al Roker of NBC News' “Today Show.”

“I was already a walker before the transplant and, after the transplant, it was the most strenuous exercise I could do," said Kathy, who often spends her weekends walking around Orlando, Florida, theme parks near where she lives.

During one group walking event, she caught the attention of “Today Show” producers and was asked to appear on the program. Kathy said traveling to New York City to be on the show was an experience she’ll never forget, as well as a platform to passionately advocate for organ donation on national television.

“One person can potentially save more than 75 lives as a donor,” said Kathy, who believes that choosing to be an organ donor is a way to make a life-changing impact on another person — just like her donor did for her.

Kathy is active with Donate Life America, a national organization that focuses on organ, eye and tissue donation. She volunteers with the group’s Central Florida chapter and attends hospital visits, donor family meetings and charity walks.

Her own donor is unknown to her, Kathy said.

"I've written letters to my donor family but haven't heard back yet, so anytime I meet a donor family I treat them as if they were my own,” she said. “I give them big hugs and tell them I'm so appreciative of them.”