Pharmacy’s top grad inspires others after family tragedy
Story by Billy Liggett | Photos by Hooman Bahrani
On a gorgeous spring day, Leah Hutchens Mitchell and 12-year-old Marshall Baker walked together, talked together, hugged and laughed together … all while surrounded by lush greenery and flowers at a park in Winston-Salem.
The perfect day was the perfect scene for the photographer capturing their every moment together.
A staged get-together, yes … but those smiles and those hugs?
Anything but staged.
This day marked another bonding opportunity for Leah and Marshall — she a recent graduate of Campbell University’s College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences … he the young man set to receive her kidney just three days later.
The two had only met a few weeks prior to this planned gathering, yet already Marshall was becoming the little brother Leah never had. And if all went according to plan, because of Leah, Marshall would be on the road to doing “typical kid things” like swimming, eating a whole pizza, drinking a Coke … stuff he’d missed out on since his diagnosis of kidney failure in January.
“He’s a goofy little 12-year-old with braces … pretty quiet, but there’s a little mischief to him,” said Leah, unable to hide the smile as she talked about her new friend. “All of this just happened to him in January … the diagnosis, the dialysis, the pain ... and it has changed his life.”
Leah can relate. She knows about life-altering events. She has endured bad news.
And like Marshall’s family, she understands pain and adversity.
If there’s anybody Marshall can look to for advice on working through it and finding success and happiness in life, it’s Leah Hutchens Mitchell.
Marshall and Leah were strangers up until a few months ago, but their families were not.
Their fathers served together on the Winston-Salem police force for years until the night in October 2009 when a suspect in a domestic dispute shot Leah’s father, Sgt. Mickey Hutchens.
Sgt. Hutchens died five days later. A registered donor, his organs were used to save the lives of others.
Leah’s decision to follow in her father’s footsteps was a personal one.
“I’ve seen how organ donation impacts other families,” she said. My family has been involved in these campaigns since then, and we’ve met other families who’ve donated organs or who’ve benefited from donors. For us, it’s taking away something positive from a horrible situation.”
Just days before the photoshoot and the surgery, Leah graduated from pharmacy school with a perfect 4.0 grade point average … the top student in the Class of 2012. The commencement ceremony in early May was bittersweet for her and her mother, Beth Hutchens.
“Her dad had been her biggest supporter,” Beth Hutchens said, “urging her to work hard and achieve the highest level she could.”
On Oct. 7, 2009, Mitchell had just finished a pharmacology quiz when she learned her husband (her boyfriend at the time) Cory Mitchell was looking for her in the Pharmacy Building. Cory was a student in Campbell’s Divinity School, so his presence across campus at that time of day struck Leah as odd.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what,” she said. “When he found me, he just said, ‘You need to get your stuff. You’re leaving.’”
By the time she received the news, Leah’s father was fighting for his life in a Winston-Salem hospital after being shot multiple times upon arriving at a domestic dispute that began in a fast food restaurant. Sgt. Hutchens and Officer Daniel Clark received a report of a man confronting his ex-wife, who worked at the restaurant and called police to say her ex was wanted on several warrants. When the officers arrived, the man ran, and they followed.
After a struggle, the man pulled out a gun and shot both officers. Clark, despite being wounded, returned fire and killed the suspect. Both men were rushed to the emergency room.
Leah and Cory, with the help of a state trooper escort, made it to Winston-Salem from Buies Creek — a 110-mile trek — in just over an hour. It was all a blur to Leah. The drive … the six days her father lay in ICU … the countless number of friends, families and well-wishers who offered their prayers … everything leading up to Oct. 12, 2009. The day her father died.
Sgt. Hutchens was survived by his wife, Beth, and his daughters, Leah and Jill. His death was not only tragic for family and friends, but for many in the city of Winston-Salem, especially those involved in law enforcement. Hundreds attended his funeral and memorial services; hundreds more who didn’t know the family paid tribute by donating blood, laying flowers at his patrol car at the police station or through other acts of kindness.
The day before her father passed away, Leah turned 21. Following the memorials and around the time her aunts, uncles and cousins were starting to return to their normal lives, she had to decide whether to take (at least) a semester off from pharmacy school or return to Campbell and spend the semester playing catch-up while still dealing with the pain of losing her father.
She chose to return to school.
“It wasn’t really an option for me,” she said. “I was going back to Campbell regardless. I was comfortable (in Buies Creek), and I told myself that if my family could go back to work and get back to their lives, I could, too.”
It wasn’t going to be easy. Over the course of two weeks and a few days, she’d missed three exams. And while her professors did go out of their way to accommodate her, catching up was far from easy.
“I had to double up on pharmacology exams, and throughout the semester, I was always a week behind,” she said. “By the end of the semester, I had to take seven finals in five days.
“But I pushed through.”
Understandably, Leah found it difficult to focus at times throughout the semester, and even into the spring. Before losing her father, she had spent most of her weekends on campus, but now she was driving to and from Winston-Salem every weekend to be with her family. Campbell University and Pharmacy Dean Ronald Maddox offered tutoring to help her get through the fall, but Leah refused.
Leading up to that moment her boyfriend pulled her from class, Leah had been literally a perfect student. She finished her first year of pharmacy school with a 4.0, this after a perfect 4.0 as an undergraduate at Campbell.
And that perfection in school goes back a long way. She made all A’s in high school, and all A’s in middle school. The last time she received a B was in an elementary school computer class … probably the third or fourth grade … Leah wasn’t sure which.
“I just remember I was devastated,” Leah recalled. “We did these fun typing tests in that class, and I could type ridiculously fast, so I’m not sure why I made a B. I’m still mad about that.”
That drive for perfection and that stubbornness that led her back to school after her father’s death are both qualities Leah said she gets from her father.
“He never said I had to make all A’s growing up, but he always told me to study hard and do the best I can,” she said. “He worked hard for his degree at Gardner-Webb, and in 27 years on the police force, he only had one write up …” for a minor incident involving a suspect in his cruiser and an alleged trip through a Burger King drive-through for lunch.
Dealing with the worst adversity imaginable, Leah finished the fall of 2009 with another perfect 4.0.
That GPA never changed through her graduation this past May.
“I am thankful for the support and caring spirit Campbell University offered Leah both before and after Mickey’s death,” Leah’s mother said. “I’m so proud of the woman she’s become.”
Eight years of studying health sciences helped prepare Leah for the surgery. Not only did she have a pretty solid understanding of the procedure and how it would affect her, but all those years of research and studying helped her find the answers to whatever questions she did have in the days leading up to going under the knife.
Her desire to become a pharmacist didn’t hit Leah until her senior year at Forbush High School in Yadkinville. That year, she accepted an internship with a local pharmacist.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field, but I wasn’t sure what,” she said. “I thought about med school or a physician assistant program, but I really enjoyed my time as an intern, despite the fact it was really busy. The pharmacist I worked for was really compassionate, and I learned a lot from him.”
Despite nearly a lifetime of straight A’s, school never came “naturally” for Leah. She said she succeeds because she never skips class and because of a strict studying regimen she stubbornly sticks to … one that involves alone time and very few “group sessions.”
And while she said she did manage a social life while in college, Leah said she put countless hours into studying.
“I have to work hard … some people can just sit in class, listen and absorb everything. I can’t. I have to study,” she said. “I was worried [about how I would do] at first, but I saw there were others struggling in the science classes that first semester. Knowing I wasn’t the only one, it reassured me. I knew I was doing the right thing.”
Leah said pharmacy school at Campbell is made up of four very different years. The first is more like an “advanced science year,” with immunology, anatomy and similar courses. The second year is centered around the main course, pharmacology, where students learn how drugs work in the body. The third year includes courses like pharmacy law and therapeutics. And the final year consists of clinical rotations where “you’re pretty much a pharmacist,” Leah explained.
She said her “straight-A” streak was only ever in doubt once. She didn’t name the course, but said the final grade was 90.1
“My mom told me once she hoped I would make a B on a rotation so I’d just get it over with,” Leah said. “This summer, I joked about going to med school in the fall … but she said I couldn’t do anything that required a grade.”
The lathroscopic surgery used to remove Leah’s kidney and the transplant took less than six hours to complete.
By early July — less than two months after the procedure — Leah was back to full health … and studying again.
Against her mother’s wishes, Leah is still being graded.
She used her recovery time — time needed for her body to not only heal from the surgery, but to re-route itself now that she’s running on one kidney — to study for board exams. Two of them — the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam and the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam.
Beyond those exams, Leah will soon start a pharmacy administration residency in Winston-Salem for Novant Health, a nonprofit system of 13 hospitals and numerous health care clinics and medical centers.
Her career goal is to become president of a hospital, or at least president over pharmacy at a large hospital.
“It’s a long road,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot more hours to get there. But hopefully this residency can lead to a managerial position. And I can work my way up from there.”
Kidney donors tend to have a longer recovery period than the recipients, Leah said. For nearly three weeks after the procedure, she experienced swelling and discomfort (which made studying only a little more difficult).
Marshall, on the other hand, was eating Bojangles chicken just a few days after the transplant.
“His recovery was a real eye-opener for me,” Leah said. “Before, he had to endure eight hours of dialysis every day. And he just felt bad all over … plus, he couldn’t swim or play like he wanted to.”
He did go to school that whole time, Leah pointed out, adding that his refusal to miss classes made him much like her in that regard.
Marshall’s father, Winston-Salem Police Officer David Baker, called Leah’s unselfish act part of God’s plan. “You can’t make this up. You can’t write this out. This is God doing what he does here,” he told a Winston-Salem TV station in May. “Mickey’s family is going to touch my family in a permanent way.”
The transplant, losing her father, maintaining a 4.0 in pharmacy school despite the tragedy … Leah Hutchens Mitchell said she understands why people view what she’s done as impressive and even inspirational. But she doesn’t view her actions and her accomplishments as anything special.
“I try to keep everything in perspective,” she said. “Anyone can donate an organ. Other students have endured pain and succeeded. I just think it’s great that people are supporting and caring.”