DAVIDSON On this Sunday morning, when more than a billion Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Easter’s promise of new life will have special meaning for the Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons and her 1,400-member congregation as they march into the sanctuary singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”
For Simmons, the bleakest moment of the year came on Jan. 20, as she conducted the funeral for a 97-year-old member of her flock at Davidson College Presbyterian Church.
“It’s very likely,” she told herself during the service, “that my husband’s funeral will be the next one.”
Gary Simmons was only 63. But unless he got a new liver soon, he had only months, maybe weeks, to live.
He was at the top of the donor list at Carolinas Medical Center, but would he get one in time? Others had died waiting, or were taken off the list when they became too ill.
Lib and Gary – college sweethearts who had married nearly 40 years before – had already begun exchanging goodbyes, telling each other during one tearful evening how grateful and free of regrets they were for their life together.
Lib, practiced in helping others make funeral arrangements, had started preparing her own family for the worst as Gary, so exhausted he couldn’t leave his bed, got sicker.
Then, on the night of Jan. 22, the call came.
“They have a liver,” Gary announced to Lib, his voice charged with emotion as he handed her the phone. He received a new liver the next day.
On Sunday, Gary, if he feels up to it, will be right there in one of the front pews for the Easter service. Otherwise, he’ll be at home, tuned to WDAV (89.9 FM), the Davidson station that airs the church’s 11 a.m. service. Either way, he’ll hear his preacher-wife thank the anonymous, grieving family that offered him their loved one’s liver and call on those within the sound of her voice to resurrect the hopes of others by signing up as organ donors.
“It will be my song of praise for the day,” Lib, 60, said about her Easter sermon. “But songs of praise are not just to be sung so that we can enjoy them. We are to take them out into the world. So I am going to issue a challenge to everybody there to go out and fill out a donor card and make that their song of praise.”
They met in the early 1970s, just outside Atlanta. Gary was a Vietnam vet studying engineering at Georgia Tech. And Lib, a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, was the “Southern belle” Gary’s roommate wanted him to meet.
Gary took to Lib – and her Presbyterian church – and she fell for his sense of humor.
They married and had a son, Mac, who’s now 31 and living in Rock Hill.
Over the years, Gary worked as a civil engineer and got good at golf. Lib was ordained in 1979, when women were still rare in the ranks of Presbyterian ministers.
Growing up in segregated South Carolina, near Columbia, Lib had been inspired by the stories of Jesus. She was particularly enamored with those anecdotes in which Jesus boldly crossed societal lines in the sand to proclaim that man’s ways – in promoting the privileged and discriminating against the downtrodden – were not God’s ways.
Her faith in that Jesus made her feel compelled to bring the Good News of social justice and equality to others.
Gary always supported Lib’s vocation by relocating with her around the country. She was called by Presbyterian churches in Jacksonville, Fla., St. Louis, San Antonio and, five years ago, Davidson, where her church is on the campus of the college founded by Presbyterians.
“I have a talented wife, and I think it was all part of the (divine) plan,” said Gary, who still raves about her sermons, always delivered without notes.
The couple fell in love with Davidson, including their neighbors on Harper Lee Street.
But in 2009, the first signs of Gary’s disease turned up when he fainted in church following knee replacement surgery. The drugs that had dulled the pain wreaked havoc upon his liver.
Tests showed he had “Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency,” a genetic condition that left Gary with cirrhosis of the liver. It was an ailment that may have killed his mother and an aunt.
The only cure, Gary and Lib were told, was a liver transplant.
But his case wasn’t severe enough to get him on the donor list. At least not at first.
Since 2002, liver allocation for adults has been based on something called a MELD (Model for End-stage Liver Disease) score – a trio of variables that measure disease severity and transplant survivability.
Translation: Gary needed to get a lot sicker before he could get on the list.
And he did.
Initially, he scored a seven. Once he scored15, he made the list. Then, he got worse: 18… 20 … 22 … 28.
Over four years, Gary’s worsening condition forced him to give up golf, driving, church and cooking – he was the family’s chef.
Even reading the newspaper became too much.
But Lib was there – “my angel,” Gary took to calling her – and she had help.
At the church, “everybody’s mantra was: ‘How’s Gary? What can we do?’ ” said the Rev. Mary Margaret Porter, the associate pastor.
Members started cooking for them, carefully skipping the salt in all the dishes bound for Gary.
Jean Jackson, a member of Davidson College Presbyterian since 1961, said she and others worked through stacks of special recipes for him.
Gary became a focus for the intercessory prayer group, which met every Wednesday morning in Lingle Chapel.
Lib and the congregation struggled: A liver donation would mean another’s death. So they said prayers for donor families, too.
Gary kept getting worse, retaining fluid and growing confused as toxins accumulated within his body, affecting his brain.
“Lib never tried to paint a rosy picture,” Porter said. “And right before the transplant, she was afraid it was too late.”
The congregation had lost Lib’s predecessor to cancer.
By Jan. 20, members of Davidson College Presbyterian were getting ready to go through the mourning process again, this time with Lib.
Instead, they got to celebrate with her. So did Gary’s transplant team.
Waiting for a donated liver, they also had watched as Gary deteriorated.
“The hardest part of my job is seeing somebody like Gary get sicker and sicker and not being able to do anything,” said Dr. Lon Eskind, surgical director of liver transplants at Carolinas Medical Center. “Fifty percent of the people on our wait list die waiting. With a hip replacement, you can pull one off the shelf. But if you don’t have the liver …”
And if you suddenly do? And the surgery is successful?
“It’s unbelievable,” said Dr. John Hanson, Gary’s hepatologist, or liver doctor. “It’s really like Lazarus – like somebody coming back from the dead. When it goes well, they get this new life and do very well.”
Not long after the Jan. 22 call, Lib took Gary to the hospital for his eight-hour operation.
The day after the surgery, Lib began reporting on Gary’s daily progress – and sprinkling in quotes from Scripture – on CaringBridge.org.
Jan. 26: “Gary has reached a big milestone today – moving from ICU to a room on the transplant floor at CMC.”
Jan. 30: “Gary is bedding down tonight in room 226 at Carolinas Rehabilitation Center … Thanks so much for your support as we learn to live this new life.”
Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day: “Gary is home!!!! … P.S. He sent me a dozen roses.”
On Feb. 21, Gary wrote: “Thanks to the donor/family, my life will be extended and I will be forever grateful.”
Saying ‘thank you’
It’s now nearly April, and so far, so good for Gary Simmons.
Fifty-two pounds lighter, he’s building up his stamina with physical therapy. And, he said recently, “my liver is loving my body.”
The stats from Eskind, his surgeon, are also encouraging: Two-thirds of the people who get liver transplants are alive 10 years later; one-half are alive after 20 years.
Gary has a lot he wants to do: write a book about his experience, and start or work with an existing foundation to encourage organ donations.
Lib is back at work after spending February taking care of Gary. And now she has had time to ponder the spiritual side of what they’ve been through.
At the top of their must-do list: reach out to the donor family with a letter, delivered by the transplant team, and then hope for a response.
“We have a cross as our (Christian) symbol – a symbol of sacrifice of life,” she said. “Gary would not have this life were it not for the sacrifice of a family … I just want to be able to say to them, from the deepest part of me, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Their gratitude extends to their church members, many of whom have also traveled the road of hardship, and often without the happy ending.
“Because of the job I do, I get to be with people in their very holy and tender times,” Lib said. “So they’ve been my teachers. … I hope I am a better minister for that experience.”
Last week, on Palm Sunday, Lib welcomed members at the church’s 8:30 a.m. service in Lingle Chapel. Then she announced that Gary had felt good enough that day to slip into a front pew with their son Mac.
Outside, it was rainy and cold. But inside, the robed pastor said, “It’s a beautiful day because we’re worshipping together and because my husband is here for the first time in a long, long time.”
The sanctuary erupted in applause.
Next up: Easter Sunday in the sanctuary.
“Every pew will be filled,” Lib said. “And we’re going to have organ donor cards at every door.”
She and her flock will find an exhilarating echo of that first Easter Sunday in Gary’s path from death’s door to a new life of recovery and health.
“Gary’s been away so long, and it’s a pure gift to our church to have him back,” said Patty King, a lifelong member of Davidson College Presbyterian. “It’s a miracle. He is our Easter.”
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