A champion over sickle cell disease, Katlin Watts holds a legacy of hope as the first Levine Children’s patient to be cured of the disease, thanks to a once-novel stem cell procedure that marked a turning point for the hospital’s pediatric blood and marrow transplantation program. Now 26 years old, Katlin has celebrated many important milestones, free from the pain of sickle cell disease. Today, she is a proud graduate of UNC Charlotte and works as a process engineer at Wells Fargo. Outside of work, Katlin treasures her time spent with her friends and family, planning her next vacation, and raising awareness about the disease that had a profound impact on her life.

Overcoming Unbearable Pain

Shortly after Katlin was born, her family learned she had sickle cell disease – an inherited condition that prevents hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) from working properly, causing red blood cells to become sickle-shaped. The disease left Katlin with countless pain crises and several hospitalizations that would keep her away from home and school for weeks at a time. After suffering a serious complication, known as avascular necrosis of the femoral head, Katlin underwent a total hip replacement at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital when she was just 12 years old.

The mental and emotional effects of the disease were just as substantial. Katlin often missed school and required private tutoring to keep up with the rest of her class. She also battled depression from living with a chronic disease. Managing her pain crises and spending so much time away from friends and family was difficult; not knowing other children who shared her disease was isolating. Fortunately for Katlin, she was surrounded by a dedicated team of doctors, nurses, and child life specialists who were committed to caring for her entire well-being.

Throughout her journey, Katlin’s fighting spirit and positive outlook continually inspired her caregivers and family members. Helen Kernodle, today an Atrium Health Foundation teammate, worked as a child life specialist on Katlin’s floor when she was a patient. Helen shared, “Over the years that I worked on the 11th floor of LCH, Katlin was admitted many times for different complications associated with her sickle cell disease. Something that stood out to me was that Katlin always had the same bright smile when I would come into the room to see her. No matter the obstacle she was facing, she seemed to have an even demeanor and a steady confidence about it. I have no doubt her admissions, surgeries, and treatments were difficult for her, but she always seemed to have a positive attitude about whatever she was facing.


Becoming a Champion

Following her successful hip replacement procedure, Katlin was named Levine Children’s Hospital’s 2009 Children’s Miracle Network Champion, serving as an ambassador for the hospital and advocate for fellow patients. The experience was pivotal for the young teen. During the Champions Across America Tour, Katlin traveled to Walt Disney World and Washington, D.C., where she enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet former President Barack Obama.

Later that year, Katlin reached another milestone. She became the first sickle cell patient at Levine Children’s to be cured of the disease through a new approach to stem cell transplantation made available to her through a clinical trial. Katlin’s father was her donor and only a partial match, making the procedure even more challenging. Thankfully, the treatment was successful and Katlin was cured of her disease.

Pictured (L-R): Katlin shaking hands with former President Barack Obama and interning at Seacrest Studios as a junior in college.

Years later, Katlin’s journey with Levine Children’s Hospital came full-circle when she accepted an internship at the Seacrest Studios. There, she had the opportunity to support other patients in the hospital through the creative realms of radio, television, and new media. Levine Children’s Hospital remains one of only a handful of children’s hospitals nationwide to have this unique resource available for patients.

“Words can’t express how much I appreciate my family, friends, and amazing care team at Levine Children’s Hospital for giving me a life that once seemed impossible,” said Katlin. “As an intern, I remember visiting a family and sharing my story. Immediately, the family began to cry and hug me. This is why I continue to share my story – to show hope is never lost.”