Former Hanover resident and Hanover College student Katie McBurnett died in September after her transplanted heart failed. (Family photo)
Former Hanover resident and Hanover College student Katie McBurnett died in September after her transplanted heart failed. (Family photo)
COLUMBUS - 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.

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.

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 funeral Sept. 23 in Madison.

During an interview, 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.

Kari Vollmer, 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 Vollmer's brother died in a car accident in January.

"I've been going through grief this whole year," Vollmer 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 statistics about organ donation on the back. The girl was bothered that people generally have no idea that 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.