Relationship blossoms between organ donor’s family and recipient
Kaye Simmons remembers the first time she met the man whose life was saved by her brother.
It was Mother’s Day, 2007. Two years prior, Kaye’s twin brother Billy Vernon was killed when he was struck by a car while helping a stranded motorist in Cass County.
Billy’s organs were donated to those in dire need of new organs to stay alive.
One of those people was Bill Coldwell, a Fort Wayne resident being kept alive by machines after suffering a massive heart attack at age 61. His wait on the transplant list for a new heart was nearly 11 weeks before a match was found.
Coldwell’s match happened to be Vernon.
A month after Vernon’s passing, his mom Diane Simmons wrote to every person who received an organ donation from her son, passing along just what kind of person that Billy was. She enclosed a wallet-size picture of Billy in each letter.
“It was very important to her to sit down and write a letter to every single recipient, so they knew a little bit about him and where he came from,” Kaye said.
Billy’s sister remembers him well.
“He was the funniest guy I’ve ever known in my life,” Kaye said. “He was so generous, giving and hilarious.
“He was a high school teacher (at Pioneer Jr./Sr. High School) and there was not anything he wouldn’t have done for those kids.”
Coldwell’s correspondence with the family of the person who saved his life continued over the next few years by letter and telephone. On that May day in 2007, Coldwell was supposed to call Diane and the family.
Instead, he went to Logansport to visit the family personally.
Kaye remembers that day 10 years ago. Her and her sisters were planting flowers outside their mother’s home when a man approached and asked if Diane was home.
“He just said, ‘I’m Bill’ and it was honestly like the whole world stopped,” Kaye said. “We knew exactly who that was.”
Diane was brought outside and was equally shocked. As Coldwell visited the family throughout the day, Billy’s mom rarely took her hand off Coldwell’s chest, listening to her son’s beating heart helping to keep a man alive.
Nearly 10 years later, Coldwell is still close with the family. They talk frequently and get together at least one time per year to talk and share laughs.
The relationship between a donor’s family and the recipient varies. Some families who have lost loved ones to tragedy or illness do not want to involve themselves in the process. Others embrace it. When the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization informed Diane where her son’s donations had gone, she immediately went about writing to each and every one of them.
Only Coldwell responded.
“I don’t want to downplay the other (donations), but this is (Billy’s) heart, this is like the core of his being,” Kaye said. “In a way, he’s still alive because he chose to help others.”
To Coldwell, he can never be thankful enough for not only the heart that Billy left him but also the way in which he has been welcomed as a member of the family. Coldwell gets emotional when talking about it.
“I know a lot of people do not want to know their donor’s family,” said Coldwell while choking back tears. “But if anything, I want to say thank you.”
To Kaye and her family, losing Billy was horrific and sad, but adjusting to “the new normal” hasn’t been all tears.
“We tell stories, we laugh, we keep his memory alive,” said Kaye, sounding like many other families of donors. “He’s not physically here, but he’s always with us.
“While I hate it, there’s nothing you can do to change it.”
An added dimension to the story is the tale of the doctors. Coldwell’s cardiologist at Lutheran Hospital is Dr. Mark Jones. In the mid-1970s, Jones’ father Dr. John Jones was an obstetrician and pediatrician in Logansport, who delivered and took care of Kaye and Billy.
In a way, Billy’s heart has been taken care of by two generations of medical Jones’.
“We didn’t make the connection until about 2012 and my father died in 2009, so we really didn’t get to talk about it,” said the younger Jones, who believes this is the first such connection with his dad in this way. “I think he would have been thrilled.”
As for Coldwell, at 73 years old his heart, Billy’s heart, is still humming along fine. So is the relationship with Billy’s family almost a dozen years after tragedy struck.
“There’s a hint of sadness there,” says Kaye. “I think there probably always will be. But I get (Coldwell) and I have my memories and those are something no one can take away.”