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A War Fought Together in the Place They Call Home

Donor Bell

B.B. (Chattanooga '69) and Katie Bell met and fell in love while they were students at the University of Chattanooga. After 32 moves in 39 years, the retired four-star general brought his bride back "home" to the Chattanooga area in 2008. Along with relishing their weekly dates—which were temporarily placed on hold while Katie underwent a double-lung transplant in 2009—the two have become reengaged with their alma mater and have established a bequest for a scholarship endowment in the UTC College of Business.

Waiting for a double-lung transplant, his wife was between the "if" and "when" of death. Katie, the beautiful blond with whom Burwell B. Bell III had fallen in love as a hotshot 19-year-old business student at the University of Chattanooga, was withering away. And there was no command the four-star general could bark or president he could call.

B.B. Bell had ascended through the ranks to become one of the Army's 11 highest ranking officers, "but here I sat helpless," he says.

Almost simultaneously with B.B.'s retirement from the Army in 2008, a rare autoimmune disease was at war within Katie's lungs. Constrictive bronchiolitis was first suspected by doctors to be a much less serious type of bronchitis, which a dose of antibiotics could easily fight off.
But the battle was just beginning with an incurable disease that would eventually make her lungs stop working.

"This was going to be a war we would fight together, not much different from when I was commanding troops in the midst of dire situations—she was always right there with me on the home front, caring, mentoring and lobbying for Army families. She was a champion for soldiers' spouses and children. It was now my turn," B.B. says.

"Take Me Home"
"Those last 15 years I rarely saw him," says Katie of the general who has commanded NATO land forces, U.S. Army forces in Europe and the United States and UN forces in Korea, his last post before retirement.

After 32 moves in 39 years, when asked where she wanted to go, Katie said, "Take me home."

"Move 33 was for her, not me," says B.B., who bought a home just outside of Chattanooga in Ooltewah while he was on leave in the spring of 2008. "It was time."

What he thought would be just a four-year fulfillment of an ROTC scholarship commitment turned into nearly 40 years.

"It was time for me to start dating my wife, my college sweetheart, again," B.B. says.

But matinees and walks in the park would have to wait.

Their post-Army life courtship started with a visit to a Chattanooga doctor, who sent them to Florida's Mayo Clinic. Test after test and medical appointment after medical appointment landed Katie on the lung transplant list at Vanderbilt by early 2009. They waited at home in Ooltewah for either Katie's death or the lifesaving call.

"She was a prisoner of a wheelchair and oxygen mask," B.B. says. "She was nearing death."

But even then, Katie would sit in their sunroom, basking what was left of her frail frame in the sunshine.

Then the call came— March 24 at 8 p.m.

"I was more fearful of surviving B.B.'s driving to Nashville," jokes Katie now, "than I was of the surgery."

The seven-hour surgery was a success, but Katie's recovery was just beginning. Under the watchful eye of her Nashville doctors, Katie began a four-month rehabilitation process. The two moved into a small Nashville apartment near Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"That's where we started dating again," B.B. says.

"He remembered where the kitchen was," says Katie, laughing. "Fresh fruit, toast or even grits and sausage would be waiting for me every morning."

"We talked, we laughed—we found each other again," she says. "It was such a trying time, but it was such a special time, too."

"Everything was a success and we were back at home, welcomed by mounds of boxes to unpack," says Katie, who today is spry and strong.

Transplant Saves Another Life
Her medical journey is one she shares with their 42-year-old son, Buck, who, incredibly, also underwent a successful double-lung transplant a year after Katie due to a lifelong battle with the genetic disease cystic fibrosis.

"From the moment he was born, Buck defeated all medical predictions," Katie says of Buck, who was stricken by health problems since his birth in Germany, where B.B. was deployed in the field.

"'Failure to thrive' is what I was told when he was born. We were told he would die in a few months because so little was known about cystic fibrosis in the early '70s."

The odds caught up with Buck in 2010, when his lungs failed, presenting him with one option—a lung transplant like his mom.

Today Buck is married and has a daughter in Tampa.

"I live because someone else died and donated their lifesaving lungs," says Katie, touching her wrist, where a lime green plastic bracelet symbolizes the importance of organ donation. B.B. slightly raises the cuff of his blazer to show off his matching bracelet.

She says, "It's a blessing that brings a great obligation—a duty—to tell others about Donate Life America (a nonprofit alliance committed to raising awareness of the lifesaving power of organ, eye, and tissue donors)."

Giving Thanks
The couple's gratitude extends back to UT Chattanooga in the form of a bequest to create scholarships in the College of Business.

"UTC is where we first met. It's where I first committed to the Army—we have a lot to be thankful for because of UTC," B.B. says.

"My proudest accomplishment had nothing to do with me," he continues. "It is about any help that we can give to young people. Giving them an opportunity to grow and mature and seek their goals and dreams, watch them achieve-my contributions every day in the Army, and still, are focused on that.

"It's a blessing," he says, "that seeds gratitude for what we've been given—the very breath we breathe."

Leave a Legacy
To learn about the many ways you can leave a legacy at UT, contact the Office of Planned Giving at (865) 974-4826 or plannedgiving@tennessee.edu today.

 

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