Born dead: AF medical excellence leads Airman back to where her life began

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christopher Carwile
  • 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs
What would you do to repay someone for saving your life? How far would you go?

Col. Katherine Rearden, 59th Medical Wing Clinical Research Division chief, answers that question every day of her life.

"If I was going to be born dead anywhere, I thank God it was here in San Antonio at Lackland Air Force Base," she said.

This is not a simple statement to make, or to understand, at first. To truly appreciate her story, you have to start at the beginning, with her parents.

Rearden's father, Anthony Palmere, joined the Air Force in 1952 at the age of 19. He was a pharmacy technician at Kelly AFB, now known as Port San Antonio, adjacent to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Her mother, Beatrice Groves, joined the Air Force through the Women in the Air Force program, and was assigned as a personnelist at Kelly.

Rearden recounts her father's version of how he met her mother while playing basketball. "The story goes that it was my father's best game he ever played," says Rearden, "because every time he hit a basket, this tall redhead stood in the back and he could see her legs."

After only a few months of dating, Palmere and Groves were married at the Kelly AFB chapel. Shortly after, Rearden's mother was surprised to discover she was pregnant. Not having planned on a child so soon, she successfully hid her pregnancy for five months.

The pregnancy was finally discovered during a random urine screening, and she was discharged that week. At the time, pregnant women were involuntary discharged from military service.

A few months later, Katherine Palmere (Rearden) was born on Lackland at the 3700th USAF Hospital, a precursor to Wilford Hall Medical Center and what is today known as the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center.

Born with no respiration or heart rate, Rearden needed to be revived.

The medical team resuscitated her in minutes. While medics were pleased to tell Beatrice her daughter had survived, they were concerned Rearden would have brain damage because of how long she was deprived of oxygen. Doctors also discovered Rearden was born with hip dysplasia, and they warned she would be unable to walk correctly if not properly treated.

There were very few treatment options available at that time, but the Air Force Medical Service found a physiatrist to help. The doctor was able to construct a saddle block brace, which was a relatively new experimental treatment.

Rearden wore the brace off and on for two years. The brace forced her femurs into place and allowed her body to finish developing the hip sockets. It may have taken longer for her to walk, but she finished her first timed Air Force 1.5-mile run in 11:20.

Worried she would lag behind other children cognitively, Rearden's parents actively engaged her with early learning activities. Eventually, they realized developmental delays were not an issue for the child.

The example her parents set, along with the gift of life from the AFMS, led Rearden to work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. With a master's degree in social work and degrees in psychology and life science, she worked tirelessly for veterans and their dependents.

While working for the VA, she developed a strong appreciation for the military population. Her goal was to care for veterans. "That was how I wanted to pay back my country for what they had done for me," she said.

At about the same time, she'd fallen in love with a coworker who happened to be a veteran himself, retired Master Sgt. Tom Rearden. His devotion and values mirrored that of her parents, who she viewed as true heroes.

When an Air Force recruiter came to the VA, she capitalized on the opportunity to serve in the same way the heroes in her life had done.

Upon entering the service, she discovered her parents and husband were not the only heroes - the Air Force was purposefully developing heroes through its core values and a strong heritage.

"That's what we do in the Air Force. We produce Airmen. We produce leaders - men and women like my parents and my husband," Rearden said.

She explained that while she has a special place in her heart for the Air Force, service members of all the branches are among the most honorable people she's ever met.

"I remember my family taking trips to Dover (AFB, Del.) when I was young," Rearden said. "We would watch the planes come in, and I would stand next to my parents as we all rendered our salutes. We watched precious cargo come off those planes, draped with the American flag."

After 20 years of service, Rearden was presented with the opportunity she'd been waiting for. With the selection for colonel pending, she had a choice - be stationed either in Washington, D.C., or in San Antonio, Texas. She chose San Antonio as a way to be closer to her children, and return to where her parents met and her life began.

In the 1990s, at her first duty station, Sheppard AFB, Texas, she was competitively selected to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology, six years ahead of her peers. Today, Rearden is a behavioral scientist, having earned a doctorate in social welfare.

Recounting a family joke, "Imagine who she would have been if she had (been born alive)," Rearden quipped, "If I was going to be born dead, I'm glad it was in San Antonio and at Lackland. Seriously, the medical services here are phenomenal."

With her life coming full circle, Rearden reflects, "I've lived a rich and fulfilling life thanks to the medical professionals who saved my life. Now, I help build the medics who will save lives for generations to come."