'She's so strong': S.C. paramedic talks about donating kidney to niece

Beaufort County EMS Paramedic Sara Cathey and 2-year-old Natalyn Mann are recuperating after a long but successful procedure


Sofia Sanchez
The Island Packet

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Sara Cathey and her 2-year-old niece Natalyn Mann typically like to play outside and jump on the trampoline when they're together, but this weekend was a bit different.

"I'm still pretty sore, but home and recovering," said Cathey, a Beaufort County paramedic who is resting after donating her kidney to her niece.

Around Memorial Day 2021, Natalyn was diagnosed with Bilateral Renal Artery Stenosis (RAS), which results in the narrowing of an artery that connects her kidneys. Doctors also found that she had mesangial sclerosis, a genetic mutation that can cause cancerous tumors. Natalyn's RAS could have been detected during gestation, Cathey said, because her kidneys would have "shriveled up" without adequate blood flow but, because of the mesangial sclerosis, they appeared to be a normal size.

"She (Natalyn) can't always tell you what's wrong, and she's so strong," Cathey said Sunday. "Her pain tolerance is so high. When she complains about pain, it's like 'Oh God, OK, we've got to go!'"

Cathey had "never been more scared" watching Natalyn's health decline, she posted on a GoFundMe page where she has been giving periodic updates since her niece's diagnosis.

Without adequate blood flow to her kidneys and the possibility of tumors, Natalyn was left needing a double nephrectomy to have both kidneys removed in July 2021. Despite the needles, feeding tubes and pain, Cathey said, Natalyn, also known as "Miss Sassy" and "Booboo," has kept her smile and playful spirit.

"She is a bundle of joy smiling since day one," Cathey said. "She can be hot and cold because she will flip a switch, but she's super outgoing. I cannot wait for her to get older; I'm ready to see that bubbly personality."

Over the last year of hospital visits, Natalyn's aunt estimates her niece has been home only four months out of the last 12. After the double nephrectomy, the 2-year-old was able to go home for the first time in months, a small victory for family members who knew Natalyn would eventually have to go back for a transplant. She was able to be with her three older brothers and other family members who gathered to celebrate her homecoming.

"It's a great feeling to have her home. Everybody missed her," Cathey said. "It's also a bit scary when she comes home because you don't want her to get sick, and everyone is going to want to come over."

When it was time to test to see who was eligible for a kidney donation, Cathey said she started working to lose weight right away, hoping she could be a match. Having a living donor who is genetically similar to the recipient is ideal because it means there is less of a risk of rejection. The only problem, she said, was that she weighed 278 pounds.

"I started losing weight because the transplant team told me I couldn't even be tested to be her donor," Cathey said. "Obviously, she had to be stabilized. I did not know I was her donor until January of this year."

By April 2022, almost a year after her niece's first diagnosis, Cathey had dropped 110 pounds.

"Everybody at work was super supportive; everybody in my home life was super supportive," Cathey said. "I had a lot of motivation with her, obviously. Her mom would ride the golf cart behind me while I was running."


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The July 6 surgery was supposed to last four hours, but a blood flow issue meant that it took twice as long instead, Cathey said.

"The kidney was on ice a lot longer than they anticipated for a living donor, so they told my family, 'Don't be alarmed, she might not produce urine for three to eight weeks,'" she said. "An hour after surgery, she started producing urine. The kidney is working really good."

While recuperating, Cathey has gone to visit her niece most every day.

"I think I watched 'Frozen' with her four times in the hospital yesterday," she said. "She got up and walked for the first time yesterday, The kidney is working."

As of Sunday, Natalyn was "doing OK," but doctors were still working to stabilize her blood pressure without medications. Natalyn has been fed via a feeding tube for the last three months but was able to eat Saturday for the first time. She had a chicken and cheese quesadilla with happy face potatoes, her aunt said.

"I think she was more scared she wasn't going to be able to eat again," Cathey said. "She ate every last bit of it and that's never been like her. She's never finished her plate of anything."

Once the two are recovered, they will get back to cooking, singing and jumping on the trampoline, Cathey said.

"The love and support from our community has been truly amazing," she said. "I don't know how to put in words to thank anybody. We've had people reach out from all over, and it has been a true blessing."

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(c)2022 The Island Packet 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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