Katie Prager had just become a widow when she arrived at the Christmas celebration her family mounted for her on a rainy September Saturday.
Prager’s husband, Dalton, died earlier in the afternoon in Saint Louis following a failed lung transplant. He had been trying to get to Kentucky to see his wife, who is in Hospice care after her own failed lung transplant, one last time.
Katie’s family went ahead with the Christmas celebration in Fleming County; because she is in Hospice, on oxygen and weak, there’s no guarantee Katie will make it to Christmas in December. Her aunt’s house was draped in Christmas decor, and the tables were weighed down with holiday goodies such as transparent pies. Former co-workers of Katie’s at a pharmacy decorated the Christmas trees in the living room. Managers at the Lowe’s in Maysville donated the lights that cast doppling red and green lights on the ceiling.
Christmas music tinkled through the house. Little children chased each other. Adults laughed over old family stories and then prayed for Katie, who sat in the living room stunned by Dalton’s death.
“All my family and friends are here and it looks really pretty inside and outside. It’s a good atmosphere,” Katie Prager said.
Meanwhile, back at Katie’s home, workers scurried during the dinner to have it decorated for Christmas by the time she got back from the gathering at her aunt’s house, where the family was planning a Christmas ornament exchange.
Both Katie and Dalton had cystic fibrosis with a Burkholderia cepacia infection, which limited the number of surgery centers specializing in their conditions. They met, fell in love and married in 2011. Both needed new lungs. Eventually, both got their transplants, his in November 2014, hers in July 2015.
In fiction, the story would have ended there. The couple would have reunited and lived happily, blessing the advances of medical science.
In fact, the aftermath of both transplants went wrong. Dalton Prager battled pneumonia and had been on a ventilator. Katie Prager, never a large woman, is now the size of a child, her once-thick blonde hair nearly gone, her features like those of a doll. Her kidneys are failing and she travels with an oxygen tank.
Last week, she said she wanted to die naturally and had given up on all lifesaving measures except for dialysis.
On Saturday, she wore a Christmas cat sweater with a fuzzy gray and white feline, and tried to eat her way through a plate of turkey and dressing.
She was subdued and spoke softly, just a few words at a time. Asked about Dalton’s death hours ago, she said softly, “I’m not going to answer that.” Later she explained that she just couldn’t talk about Dalton’s last hours, not yet.
“He meant everything to me,” she said.
But she believes in an afterlife, and said, “I’ll see him soon.”
A crowdfunding campaign called “Katie’s Celebration of Life” has raised $31,003. Katie Prager wants to spare her parents the burden of some of her final expenses.
On Facebook she wrote of her husband’s passing: “My angel, my best friend, the love of my life, my husband went to be with the Lord our God today. ... He was a courageous fighter and ‘give up’ wasn’t in his vocabulary.”
Katie loved Dalton so much, her mother Debra Donovan said, that she briefly removed her name from the lung transplant list so that Dalton could get his new lungs first. When she returned to the transplant list, she found that an insurance snafu kept her from getting her lung transplant until the University of Pittsburgh received an exemption to help her.
On Saturday, Debra Donovan said that she didn’t think that Katie had really expected that Dalton would die while he was trying to get to his wife.
“She’s a selfless person,” Debra Donovan said of her daughter. “She always puts other people before herself.”
“I just want people to remember me as a fighter, and someone who never gave up,” Katie Prager said.