By Phuong Ly
Wednesday, December 31, 2008 3:34 PM
Sometime in June 2001, Karen Cassiday began noticing that something was terribly wrong with her boss. Every week, Susan Hager slipped out of work for a doctor's appointment. She spent some afternoons napping, her petite, thin body stretched out on the purple sofa in her corner office. One day, Susan couldn't even muster her usual smile.
Finally, Karen approached Susan, then 56. What was going on?
In a quiet, resigned voice, Susan delivered the news to her executive assistant: She was dying from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic illness that had covered her kidneys with cysts. She had put her name on a list for a transplant, but it was unlikely that she could get one anytime soon. Her daughter, Elizabeth Finley, and Susan's siblings couldn't donate a kidney -- they were in danger of getting the same disease. Susan's husband, Eric Hager, had been tested, but he wasn't a match.
Karen, then 48, had worked at Hager Sharp, the D.C. public relations firm that Susan owned, for just 2 1/2 years. But she couldn't imagine working for anyone other than Susan, who was so vibrant and nurturing, and whose frequent laughter rang through the halls.
"The way she was, she made you want to achieve more," says Karen, now the firm's administrator. "I appreciated the type of boss she was. I really didn't want to lose her."
So while Susan was away on summer vacation, Karen went to Washington Hospital Center to be tested to see if she could donate her own kidney. Karen's kidneys turned out to be a perfect match. Her only fear was that she would not be able to give her husband, Fred, or her two teenage children a kidney if they needed one later. But donation programs make sure that living donors and their immediate family members go to the top of the transplant list. With that assurance, Fred told Karen that the decision was up to her.
When Susan got back to the office in September, Karen went over the mail and upcoming appointments. Then, she told her boss to mark down Nov. 1. That would be the day of the kidney transplant.
At first, Karen says, Susan looked bewildered. Then she screamed and hugged Karen again and again.
The morning of the transplant, Karen remembers, she and Susan couldn't stop giggling and making silly comments about their hospital gowns. Another patient in the busy pre-surgery room looked over at them and said loudly, "I'll have whatever they're on."
After the surgery, Karen woke up in a hotel-like VIP suite, where diplomats and rich patients from overseas stayed. Susan, who was recovering on a different floor in a typical hospital room, had made the arrangements as a surprise.
It was always Susan's style to be the giver of gifts, not the receiver. Her generosity was legendary at Hager Sharp, the 40-employee firm that she'd helped found in 1973. To Susan, every occasion deserved an office celebration -- upcoming weddings and babies, birthdays and date-of-hire anniversaries. Those who reached their 10th anniversary with Hager Sharp received an all-expenses-paid trip designed by Susan. Someone who liked theater, for example, would be sent to New York, with a stay at the Plaza Hotel and Broadway tickets.
The gifts went beyond things of monetary value. When Darcy Sawatzki, a senior account supervisor, gave birth to her first child, Susan presented her with a silver rattle from Tiffany's that had been her own daughter's. Darcy, who started at Hager Sharp as a 21-year-old intern in 1999, says that Susan made her feel like a part of a family, not a minion.
Susan learned to be kindhearted as a child growing up in Owensboro, Ky., a town on the Ohio River. She was the oldest of seven kids; her father worked for the post office, and her mother was a schoolteacher. Their home was where the neighborhood kids hung out for meals and pickup baseball games.
After graduating with a degree in sociology from Brescia University in her home town, she became a VISTA volunteer and started a newspaper and Head Start program in a remote Alaska town. Her husband worked with VISTA in a different town, and they met during a monthly gathering of the volunteers. They were married in 1967 and moved to Washington, where Susan was a recruiter for VISTA and the Peace Corps and gave birth to their daughter in 1968.
After a few years of working for other people, Susan wanted to strike out on her own. At the time, few businesses were owned by women. She and her friend Marcia Sharp (who left the firm in 1993) struggled to get banks to finance their public relations firm, which would be aimed at nonprofits and government agencies. Susan had to ask Eric to co-sign financial documents. As Hager Sharp grew more successful, Susan never forgot those early years. She helped found the National Association of Women Business Owners and mentored others.
Karen joined Hager Sharp as an executive assistant in 1999, and at first glance, she could not have been more different from her boss. Susan was a glamorous burst of energy in brightly colored outfits and fishnet stockings. She wore her blond hair short, her heels high and, at parties, she liked to swish a feather boa. Karen was far less flamboyant. She wore sensible clothes and apologized for her community college education.
But under Susan's influence, Karen flourished. When Karen demonstrated a knack for computers, Susan gave her responsibility over the firm's tech system. Susan brought Karen along when she attended lunches sponsored by networking groups. She also introduced Karen to the charitable causes she supported, such as the Lab School for students with learning disabilities.
Eric Hager says one of the things Susan liked about being a business owner was getting to reward people in whatever way she saw fit -- no need to okay it with anyone else. "She knew that part of the asset of the organization was the intense loyalty and trust and honesty of the people," he says.
Many of the employees took that same attitude toward each other. Karen worried that her co-workers would think she was the biggest brown-noser ever for donating her kidney. She quickly learned otherwise. During the month she was recovering from the surgery, several colleagues came over to her house with food. The day she came back, the staff presented her with a set of costume angel wings to wear.
Karen told Susan that she should never feel as if she owed her something for the transplant. Once, she even asked another co-worker to tell Susan to stop mentioning it; she didn't want to be forever known as the organ donor. Even so, Susan couldn't help but continue to introduce Karen as "my lifesaver." Each year, the two women and their husbands attended a black-tie ball held by the National Kidney Foundation.
In November 2006, Susan called a staff meeting to mark the fifth anniversary of the transplant. She thanked Karen for giving her five years of life. Without the kidney, she wouldn't have seen her granddaughters blossom into preteens, savored trips to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and joined the board of trustees of her alma mater. The lights in the conference room dimmed, and up came a slide show about Italy. Susan was sending Karen and her husband on a six-day, all-expenses-paid trip. Karen was speechless, but a co-worker announced that she would say what every-body else was thinking: "Susan, do you need any other body parts?"
When Susan began thinking of retiring, more than one large public relations company offered to buy out her firm, but she resisted. She wanted Hager Sharp to stay intact and independent. In June, the company celebrated its 35th anniversary with a black-tie party at the Fairmont Hotel. There, Susan announced that she had converted Hager Sharp to an employee stock ownership program. All of them would own a piece of the business.
Early on a Saturday morning, about a month later, Karen received a devastating call. It was Eric, speaking in an eerie, controlled voice. Susan had died the night before, he told her. When Karen got off the phone, she broke down in tears. Later, Karen told a co-worker that she couldn't believe Susan, who had been at work that Thursday, had died so suddenly.
The cause of death was heart arrhythmia and complications of her polycystic kidney disease. Susan's kidney had been doing well, Eric says, but every day, she had to take a handful of pills. There were drugs to keep her body from rejecting the organ; drugs to counteract the side effects; and drugs for a variety of other ailments, including high blood pressure and cholesterol. Susan never complained. Her father, a brother and other relatives died in their 50s or younger of various ailments, and Susan considered herself lucky to have outlived them.
In the past year, her husband says, Susan would often feel tired. But on the night of the Hager Sharp anniversary, no one could tell. She glowed in her white evening gown. She danced all night. And when the group sang songs, her voice was the loudest of all.