#MollysKids: Meet Katlin Watts, her story to be highlighted this weekend at Levine Children’s Gala

The hospital is turning 15 years old this weekend.
Meet Katlin Watts, her story to be highlighted this weekend at Levine Children's Gala.
Meet Katlin Watts, her story to be highlighted this weekend at Levine Children's Gala.(Provided photo)
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 10:19 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Meet the first Levine Children’s Hospital patient to be cured of sickle cell disease: Katlin Watts.

Her procedure was years ago. She is now 26 years old, and holds a legacy of hope for the hospital, which is turning 15 this year. We’ll honor LCH’s birthday next weekend, on April 1, at its annual fancy fundraising gala. Katlin will be part of who is being honored at the affair.

Katlin has quite a story. Her stem cell procedure marked a turning point for the hospital’s pediatric blood and marrow transplantation program, despite it once being considered a novel procedure.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited condition that prevents hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) from working properly, causing the red blood cells to become sickle-shaped. The disease left Katlin with pain and hospitalizations, and away from home and school for weeks at a time.

Then, at 12 years old, she had a severe complication (something known as avascular necrosis of the femoral head), forcing Katlin to undergo a total hip replacement.

Luckily, that surgery was successful. Afterward, Katlin was named Levine Children’s Hospital’s 2009 Children’s Miracle Network Champion. This role gave her access to be an advocate for other kid patients, touring the country doing so.

She went to Walt Disney World and Washington, D.C., where she got to meet the president at the time, Barack Obama.

[Update to the story of Katlin Watts]

Katlin Watts with Barack Obama
Katlin Watts with Barack Obama(Provided photo)

As difficult as the physical effects of her illness were, Katlin says the mental and emotional effects were equally as substantial. She required private tutoring to keep up with the rest of her class and battled depression. Not knowing other kids who shared her disease was isolating, she said. What helped her get through -- along with her own fighting spirit -- was a team of child life specialists at the hospital focused on her entire wellbeing.

One of those specialists was a woman named Helen Kernodle.

Helen says she has fond memories of this strong beauty.

“Over the years when I worked on the 11th floor, Katlin was admitted many times for different complications associated with sickle cell disease,” she said. “I remember her always having the same bright smile when I came in her room. No matter the obstacle, she had an even demeanor and steady confidence. I have no doubt her admissions, surgeries, and treatments were difficult, but she always seemed positive about what she faced.”

As Katlin traveled to be a child advocate as the Children’s Miracle Network Champion, she was still working on trying to beat her disease. This, at the same time the hospital was part of a clinical trial, trying a new approach to curing sickle cell: Using a stem cell transplant. Katlin became a patient able to try the process. Her father was her donor. He, however, was only a partial match which made the procedure even more challenging.

But, it worked. The new-age and very unknown treatment (at the time) was successful. Katlin was cured.

Katlin wrapped up her time at LCH, which as close as some staff gets with the kids and as close as some kids get with the staff, can be bittersweet, but is always the goal. Katlin says she never forgot her time there though and years later returned to Levine Children’s as an intern at Seacrest Studios in the lobby of the hospital.

Seacrest Studios is a radio studio that broadcasts from the bottom of the building to all the rooms, providing entertainment to patients. It’s one of only a few hospitals nationwide to have this resource.

Kaitlyn Watts in the Seacrest Studio.
Kaitlyn Watts in the Seacrest Studio.(Provided photo)

It was through Seacrest Studios that she fell in love with supporting other patients through broadcasting and talking about her own journey.

“Words can’t express how much I appreciate my family, friends, and amazing care team for giving me a life that once seemed impossible,” said Katlin. “As an intern, I visited a family and shared my story. Immediately, the family began to cry and hug me. This is why I continue to talk about overcoming obstacles—to show hope is never lost.”

Today, Katlin is a proud graduate of UNC Charlotte and works as a process engineer at Wells Fargo. Outside of work, she likes to promote awareness about the disease that had a profound impact on her life.

Stories of hope never get old, Katlin. Thank you for sharing yours. Looking forward to honoring lots of kids next weekend while emceeing LCH’s 15th year birthday gala, and sharing your story there.