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Kathy Augustine was only 28 years old when she was rushed to the hospital for emergency heart surgery in 2017. Augustine was in her first year of teaching kindergarten, and she had been plagued with what seemed like a bad cold for weeks, but she didn't think much about it — until her heart failed.
Doctors discovered that Kathy has cardiomyopathy, a disease that changes the shape of the heart and the way it functions. After almost a year of complications, Augustine received a lifesaving heart transplant in 2018. During her recovery, Augustine decided to start her life over.
"I had no idea what I was going to do," Augustine told TODAY. Augustine actually died during surgery, and it wasn't clear what kind of recovery might be possible for her. "My parents didn’t know if I was going to be a vegetable or if I’d be able to do anything," said Augustine.
It turns out that Augustine was going to be able to do a lot more than anyone imagined, but it didn't seem that way at first. "I had to go to rehab to learn how to walk, how to sit, how to get up off chairs," she said. Augustine celebrated her first day out of the hospital by going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando.
Augustine was in a wheelchair for that first excursion, but she said that being able to explore parks and go on rides was one of the things that motivated her to start exercising. "I've always been a theme park person," she said. "So, I’ve always walked a lot in theme parks, but the I started getting in even more walking because I wanted to get healthy."
Walking became Augustine's go-to fitness activity. She walked to recover and, when she learned that she might need another heart transplant later in life, she walked to prepare. "If I needed a new heart transplant, I was not going to be eligible for a second heart (because my weight was borderline)," Augustine recounted. Her cardiologist recommended gastric sleeve surgery and fitness. So, Augustine walked more.
Before Augustine had the bypass surgery in 2020, she had already lost 50 pounds with walking alone. Since then, she's lost another 50. This year, Augustine said that she's picked up her walking game even more, which has allowed her to stop taking a medication that was "slowing her down."
Walking is motivating, Augustine told TODAY. "It's something I can do easily that doesn't physically hurt me," she said. Not only that, but Augustine's walking practice has brought new kinds of community into her life. She often walks at Universal Studios in Orlando or on the beach where she lives, in Merritt Island, Florida. "At Universal, it’s always fun because I have tons of friends here. There’s a group called the Single Riders, and I’ve made like 200 friends from that group," she said.
Augustine is also an active member of the Start TODAY Walking Club on Facebook. "Every day I see people posting motivational stories," she said. Augustine also posts stories of her own and encourages new group members.
"It’s a great way to get motivated and see the progress of everyone else," Augustine said. "I made probably 15 new friends today just from hanging out with the Start TODAY Walking Club." Not to mention Al Roker and Stephanie Mansour!
The community that Augustine has found in the Walking Club is a crucial element of Augustine's fitness journey — and her health. "I can get encouragement, or I can encourage other people, or just like people posts," she said. "It’s just a great way to stay motivated."
Augustine's motivation has taken her far — literally. She started by walking five minutes at a time, but now she often walks for miles. "Last night I walked nine miles at Universal Studios," she told TODAY. "For a heart patient, that's so amazing."
Now, Augustine uses walking as a way to educate others about organ donation. Every year in April, she walks a 5K that benefits Donate Life, an organization that encourages people to become organ donors. "I was able to walk the (5k) because of my donor, because they gave me the second chance of life and I'm just super grateful," said Augustine.
With her inspirational walking practice, Augustine is showing people the enormous difference that organ transplant can make on peoples' lives — one step at a time.