(Note: The story has been corrected to reflect Sarah Mathis graduated from Bulloch Academy.)
Every college graduate has a story to tell, a journey of facing obstacles through the course of their studies and pushing forward to make it across that stage on graduation day.
And then there are some graduation stories that stand out; they leave a mark on us, lift us up, inspire us, and enlarge our faith in the human spirit — like the story of a young Statesboro native.
Sarah Mathis was born with biliary atresia, a rare, congenital liver disease that can only be cured by a liver transplant. With a combination of procedures and medications, doctors were able to control her condition for 18 years until, as a senior at Bulloch Academy, Mathis underwent her first liver transplant in the fall of 2017.
“I was strong and healthy at the time, but my medications weren’t as effective anymore,” Mathis said. “We knew at some point I would need a new liver. … I was determined after my surgery to get back to school and finish my senior year.”
Mathis grew up surrounded by a loving family in Statesboro. Her parents, Bill and Michelle, and younger sister, Emma, were by her side through all her health challenges.
Reflecting on that first major surgery, Michelle Mathis said, “Once I received the call from Atlanta saying they had a liver, I had to go to school to get Sarah. I was a mixture of nerves and relief that it was finally happening. I was worried about her physical health, of course, but her mental health as well … but she was so determined to meet whatever goals the doctors and nurses set for her.
“I saw how hard she worked every day at the hospital and at my sister’s house in Atlanta, where we stayed after her surgery. She was able to recover enough to play tennis in the spring, go to prom, dance in her last recital and walk at her high school graduation. She made me a very proud mom.”
Mathis was ready to branch out after her recovery, even defying her doctor’s orders to stay close to home for college. She chose Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus because it’s where she observed a close-knit community like the one she valued in Statesboro.
Despite confidence in her decision, she admits it was quite intimidating being on campus for the first time.
“I didn’t know a soul,” she said. “I met my roommate on Storm Day, and she encouraged me to rush, which I’m so glad I did, because I met some of my very best friends during recruitment for Zeta Tau Alpha.”
Health issues begin again
By all accounts, Mathis was thriving as she entered her senior year of college, with one exception: She was experiencing more frequent spikes in blood tests that measured the health of her liver. These abnormal levels would send her to the hospital for two or three days at a time to receive IV steroids.
By October 2021, Mathis had to spend a week in the hospital. While there, she was told they would have to start the testing and paperwork to put her back on the transplant list.
“I was so frustrated,” she said. “It didn’t seem fair. … All my friends were 21, living their college life, having so much fun, and I missed being with them. … The same thing had happened to me in high school, and it was happening again.”
With the constant threat of COVID and Sarah’s weakened condition, she and her family decided it would be best for her to move back home and work on her studies remotely.
In December 2021, on the Friday before Christmas, Mathis decided to meet up with a small group of friends in Americus, some of whom were graduating and a few who had graduated the previous spring, to celebrate their accomplishments. Mathis attended the graduation ceremony, and they all went out to dinner and enjoyed the weekend catching up.
By Monday morning, Mathis became so ill that her parents drove from Statesboro to pick her up. She was experiencing the symptoms of rapid liver failure, and Mathis was life-flighted to Emory University Hospital that same night.
Because of Emory’s strict COVID protocols, Mathis’ family was not allowed to visit her in the hospital until 14 days later. Even worse, she could not be placed on the transplant list until that same time, when she would be considered COVID-negative.
Mathis spent two weeks battling alone in the hospital, enduring frequent trips to the ICU when her oxygen and blood pressure would drop suddenly in the middle of the night.
On January 6, 2022, Mathis was reunited with her family and was placed on the transplant list. On January 11, she was taken back for her second liver transplant.
The day after surgery, Sarah woke up unable to speak because of the ventilator, drowsy from the anesthesia but being forced to stay awake by the medical staff. Complications from the previous transplant and long hours spent under sedation had prevented doctors from closing her wound, and two days later they took her back into surgery, which meant several more days on a ventilator.
Aftermath of second transplant
Once the second transplant was done, it was time for the hard work of recovery to begin.
“I had been there a month,” Mathis said. “I missed my family, and I had been lying in bed for a month…I had no muscle left.” Sarah had to undergo painful physical therapy to walk, bend, change her clothes, brush her teeth and eventually walk up stairs, none of which had been a problem after her first transplant.
Sarah was discharged on January 28, readmitted 12 hours later for internal bleeding, and discharged again on January 31, 2022.
“I had friends from college constantly sending me packages, texting and calling me,” Mathis said. “They still call me regularly…they are the kind of friends who only come once in a lifetime.”
Mathis was able to return to her remote classwork in March, and with the help of her Georgia Southwestern professors, she was able to graduate with honors and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology on December 9.
Mathis expresses immense gratitude for the community at GSW and her hometown of Statesboro who “circled up to support me and my family through everything.”
Mathis now lives in Statesboro with her sister, Emma, and their two dogs, Alfie and Bailey.
About her sister’s journey, Emma Mathis said, “Sarah has inspired me to always keep my head up no matter the circumstances. She’s taught me to love with all of my heart and to always be brave.”
Rebekah McLeod works in the Communications Department at Georgia Southwestern University in Americus.