The Times West Virginian

January 30, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Inspirational story shared with the world

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — When the letter arrived at the “Today Show” offices of Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee Gifford at NBC-TV, it was certain to capture the attention of Kotb.

It was, after all, from Ashley Calvary of Morgantown, which was where Kotb grew up after having been born in Norman, Okla., and the topic of the letter was how Calvary’s mother, Kathi Hahn, wife of West Virginia University assistant men’s basketball coach Billy Hahn, had twice beaten cancer.

As a breast cancer survivor herself, Kotb was caught up in the possibilities, invited the mother/daughter combination to New York to share their inspirational story with the world … and if you can’t be inspired by this story you are lacking much in the way emotions.

The story began in 2007, when Kathi was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent two surgeries and chemotherapy, both of which worked so that by spring she was in remission.

To celebrate, the family went off to South Carolina on vacation, but what should have been a joyous time soon turned dark.

“Our vacation came to an abrupt halt one day when my mom called to me from across the beach house in a concerned voice,” Ashley wrote in her letter to Today. “When I walked into the bathroom I found my mom standing in a mirror examining a lump on her neck.”

After seeking three opinions all agreed on the diagnosis.

She was suffering from leukemia.

She could have caved in right then. Instead, she was ready to battle.

“She told everybody she was an overachiever,” Ashley wrote in her letter to the show. “She told everybody she got the leukemia so soon after the ovarian cancer so that she could get it over with and be done with it all.”

After several rounds of chemotherapy, she went into remission.   But next some bad news would come.

To survive she needed a bone marrow transplant, but no one in her family was a match.

Doctors at Ruby Memorial Hospital put Kathi on the International Bone Marrow Registry and conducted a successful search, going even beyond their greatest expectations.

“Nobody matched me, so they put me on the international list,” Kathi said. “A woman in Germany was a 10 out of 10, a perfect match.”

“The lady (donor) said that her daughter told her, ‘Mom, I’m so scared,’” Ashley explained. “She said, ‘You know what, I’m going to save someone else’s mom.’ And that’s exactly what she did. A complete stranger saved my Mom, and we are forever grateful.”

There was one force driving Kathi throughout her treatment.

“My Mom’s main goal through all she went through was to dance at my wedding … and dance she did. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Ashley said.

“I think every single person there was in tears,” Kathi added. “It was like a group hug dance. It was wonderful.”

Kathi pointed out how easy it is to be a bone marrow donor.

“It’s not hard to be a bone marrow donor,” Kathi explained. “The test is like a cheek swab. That’s it. They do that to see if you are a match. If you are a match, they draw blood. That’s it.”

Kathi was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2008, and underwent chemo and then a search for a donor before finding her donor in Dusseldorf, Germany, leading to the surgery in February 2009.

It took a lot of people to get Kathi Hahn through her ordeal.

“Thank God for Nine-West at Ruby Memorial Hospital and Dr. Michael Craig,” Kathi said.

One day, Hahn brought his whole basketball team in to see his wife.

“Dr. Craig said to them, ‘I’m going to tell you this now, get the hell out if you’re not in it to win it.’ Well, they left,” Kathi said. “They all left. Ashley and I were there going ‘Oh, my God.’ Then they all came back with WVU TV shirts on.”

“In honor of Kathi’s story, Gifford collaborated with another song writer and wrote a song entitled “You Need a Miracle.” Broadway performer Danielle Williamson sang the song live on “Today.”

The “Today Show” also gave the Hahns plane tickets so they can go to Dusseldorf, Germany, to meet the donor.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.