By ROBERT GOODEN
Gary Simmons is a lucky man, and wants to share his story and his passion about organ donation with others.
A Davidson resident for the past years, Simmons received a life-saving liver transplant on Jan. 23, 2013, after being on the brink of death with Alpha 1 Anti-trypsin deficiency, an inherited liver condition. Simmons’ traumatic journey began when he had a right knee replacement in December 2008. He was given the pain killer oxycodone, which left his already damaged liver to the worst condition—cirrhosis. The only cure would be a transplant.
So the long road of getting worse in order to get better via a transplant had begun. It was a rough road for much of the next four years.
Simmons’ problem was discovered in the emergency room at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville, after he passed out during a January 2009 worship service at Davidson College Presbyterian Church. His wife, DCPC pastor Lib McGregor Simmons, called for an ambulance, not realizing it was Gary who had passed out.
Dr. Jason Mutch discovered the problem after several blood tests. Without a donor who had the same blood type, liver size and other functional requirements, Gary’s prospects looked bleak. Given that more than 123,000 people are on the waiting list for liver transplants, and only 25 percent receive life-saving organs, the picture was grim.
Simmons often thought about the words of late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano: “Never give up, don’t ever give up.” They helped as his condition worsened.. He had been in hazardous situations before, such as during a year-long tour of duty during Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Infantry, where he earned the Bronze Star and Air Medal. Despite his year in combat with the elite 101st, Simmons hesitates in calling himself a hero, saying that organ donors are the real heroes.
Nearly a year after his successful transplant, Simmons talked about himself, his transplant and organ donation during a recent interview.
Q. Tell me a little about where you are from, places you have lived, and how you chose Davidson.
Gary Simmons: I am originally from Savannah, Georgia. I have lived in many places during my life, including Jacksonville, FL, St. Louis, MO, San Antonio, TX and now Davidson. So let me elaborate on why so many moves. I felt like getting through some tough conditions in Vietnam was a result of much praying. Upon surviving unscathed, I know the Lord had a “call” for me. I didn’t realize what the “call” was until shortly after marrying Lib McGregor. She was “called” to Columbia Seminary to be a pastor. Then I realized my call was to support her in her ministry in any way I could. So all of these moves were in the plan. And it has been a blessing developing relationships with the various church communities. And we are very pleased to be in Davidson.
Q. So I understand you are a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket and a veteran. Tell me more if you would.
Gary Simmons: I transferred to Georgia Tech and changed majors after five quarters at Armstrong Atlantic College. My draft number was very low and after a very successful first quarter at Tech, the selective service department thought I was trying to dodge the draft by transferring. There is much more, but the bottom line is they needed infantrymen, given the Vietnam buildup. After Vietnam, I returned to earn a degree in Civil Engineering at Tech. Let me digress. In the spring of 1972, my roommate said, “I would like to introduce you to a Southern belle.” Her name was Lib and she was a student at Agnes Scott College in nearby Decatur. After a blind date and never dating any others, in June of 1974, we married. And 39 years later, we are still deeply in love. Of course now after the past four years, she now has another title, my “Angel,” as she did all she could to help me stay alive. If I had never been drafted to serve in Vietnam, I would have never have met Lib. A few years after we got married, Lib got a call to go into the ministry.
Q. Can you tell me more about your Vietnam experience? And how has the experience impacted you, positively or negatively?
Gary Simmons: Vietnam was certainly not in my plan. Serving in the military after Georgia Tech was what I anticipated for the required four years, as an officer. I did a lot of growing up in Vietnam. In many ways, the 101st Airborne Infantry unit I served with was “bait.” And a book was written about our experience, entitled “Bait.” For the first three months, we were injected in the demilitarized zone, with a mission to prevent infiltration of the NVA. We were tremendously outnumbered by advancing brigades, and for the most part did not know it. There were many close calls with death, and I saw too much death. Some positive experiences I suppose include my appreciation for the “basics of life,” or those things that we Americans typically ignore. I saw this third world country where people lived from minute to minute under the poorest conditions, while a war was going on. It is truly a life-changing experience. You realize how lucky we are to live in the United States.
Q. Can you talk about the liver condition, including when you found out about, your journey, up until the liver transplant?
Gary Simmons: I found out soon after my knee replacement surgery that I had this condition and the cirrhosis was highly elevated rendering a dysfunctional liver. I was very sick about this time last year, and did not even realize the extent of my condition. As I mentioned earlier, I had to get really bad in order to move up the transplant list. Without a new liver, I was going to die. Then, at 9pm on Jan. 22, 2013, I received a call from Tracy, a registered nurse at the CMC Transplant Center. I knew it was Tracy as I had her on caller ID. I answered by saying, “Good evening Tracy, I can be at the center within the hour.” Tracy said, “Gary, we have found a match.” She indicated a doctor was to text her within minutes to confirm the condition, which actually happened as I was answering insurance questions. The doctor said for me to come to the center, and Tracy added, “Be careful.” Lib had just walked in from a meeting and spoke to Tracy for a minute. We were overjoyed, and broke down in tears. After a minute or so, we prayed for the donor family, realizing that a death had to occur and a grieving family was mourning a precious loss. We immediately went to the hospital, arriving within the hour.
Q. What can you tell me about the surgery, recovery and rehabilitation?
The first thing they do before the liver transplant is to prep you. I underwent a seven hour operation headed by Dr. Lon Eskind and was in the Intensive Care Unit for two days afterwards. I was out and don’t recall a thing about the surgery. I then went into rehab for about ten days and was put on a special low sodium diet, with no raw shellfish, and no grapefruit. It is amazing how bad food can taste without salt. However, my church family rose to the occasion and brought many dinners over that were creative and had some taste to them. They were wonderful before, during and after my three week hospital stay.
Q. How are you feeling after the surgery some 11 months ago?
Gary Simmons: I am feeling great! And my last monthly checkup was pretty much the same it has been over the past nine months. Dr. Zamor said in summary, “Well you have a boring chart.” The blood test results could not have been better. And that good report had me smiling. But I had to add, “I just need to lose about fifteen pounds.” And the fact is when I begin playing golf regularly, I will feel 100 percent.”
Q. What can you tell about how you were able to learn who the donor was, and any communications you have had with the donor family?
Gary Simmons: In order to potentially learn about the donor and donor family, I sent a letter to the Transplant Center three months after the surgery. That letter is then sent to the donor family. I received a letter from Harold, the eldest son of my donor Peggy Long shortly thereafter, with some sad and happy comments. Harold told of his mother Peggy of how giving she was and just loved to cook for all gatherings, and they had many. He said Peggy died of a sudden stroke. She lived in Kannapolis and had two sisters and a brother. She has four sons—Harold, Bryan, Philip and Jason.
On Sept. 7, 2013, Lib, my son Mac, and I met the family at the hospital and had a very emotional, yet celebrative, gathering. With the exception of one South Carolina Gamecock fan, they are all Clemson tigers, which pleases Mac, who is a Clemson graduate, and my wife, whose male family members all went to Clemson.
On Nov. 10, 2013, DCPC celebrated National Donor Appreciation Sabbath and eleven members of the family came from many directions to attend the service. At the close of worship, I introduced each member, and my church family gave them a standing ovation. That was a moment I will never forget. Joining us for dinner, the service, and Sunday lunch at our house was very special. I now have a new “call” in life—help Donate Life and LifeShare of the Carolinas increase the donor registry, so more lives are saved. So, it gives me great pleasure to speak at Rotary meetings, churches, and any event so desiring to learn more about organ donation.
And finally, I am planning the First Annual Organ Donor Appreciation/Celebrity Golf Tournament for next Sept. 15, 2014, at Trump National Charlotte. Organ Donors are heroes and I want to honor them. Please become a donor, and save a life. Go to www.donatelifenc.org and sign up, or do it when you update your driver’s license.