Near death after waiting 16 months on the organ transplant list, Gary Simmons got a call from an “angel” 9 p.m. Jan 23, 2013. He said the angel was the post-op nurse at the CMC Transplant Center. The nurse said, “Gary, we have a liver match.”
He recalls that he and wife, Lib McGregor Simmons, pastor of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, broke down in tears and said a prayer for the donor’s grieving family.
“Aside from some close calls in Vietnam, the waiting and deterioration of my health was the toughest condition I have ever faced,” said Simmons, 66, who lives in Davidson.
Raising awareness of the organ donor registry to new levels in order to save more lives has become his mission.
Simmons maintains, “When less than 50 percent of those eligible are registered donors – yet 90 percent of the nation feel organ donation is the right thing – we have a problem.
“The ‘cure’ to changing that is more awareness and education. We need more folks to say ‘yes’ at the DMV, so more of the estimated 3,200 North Carolinians on the waiting list can be saved.”
Save a Life Group, a nonprofit Simmons founded with help from friends, will hold the second annual Save a Life Golf Classic on Oct. 12, at Trump National Golf Club Charlotte in Mooresville. This is the group’s major fundraiser of the year, with proceeds going primarily to LifeShare of the Carolinas, the organ procurement organization in our region, Simmons said.
Enhancing the appeal of the October event will be participation by Emcee Bob McKillop, coach of Atlantic10 Conference champions Davidson Wildcats, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, honorary chairman of Save A Life Group. Allison’s son Davey died in a helicopter crash in 1993 at Talladega, Ala., Superspeedway, but Davey’s donated organs saved the lives of four people and improved the lives of many more.
Bobby Allison said “It is such an honor to help Save a Life Group in any way I can.”
Funds raised at last year’s successful golf tournament were put to use productively. “Our contribution of $29,000 to LifeShare of the Carolinas helped in the production of two awareness videos for viewing at DMVs by folks renewing their license or getting their first license,” Simmons said. “One focuses on teens, and the other on older adults. These educational videos are helping to increase the (organ-donor) registry as more will say ‘yes’ moments later when the DMV examiner asks, ‘Would you like to be an organ donor?’
N.C. DMV recently reported that its Huntersville center had the highest increase in donor registration in the state: 9.3 percent. And the Mooresville center had the highest add rate: 62.5 percent. Simmons reported that North Carolina now has the sixth-largest registry in the nation: 52.98 percent, based on Donate Life statistics.
As for the upcoming golf classic, Simmons said he is heartened by sponsor response. “I have gotten commitments already from enough folks to exceed last years’ results. We hope to raise more than $40,000.”
He reports that two new upper-level sponsors are supporting Save A Life Group this year: Red Ventures and LifeNet Health.
Hallie Kilmer, vice president of human capital for Red Ventures, said, “Our employees drive our community involvement program by telling us about the organizations and causes they are most passionate about, and then we find ways to support those causes through donations and volunteer support.
“Mac Simmons, a Red Ventures employee and the son of Gary Simmons, shared the story of Save A Life with us. Many of us at RV have been touched by personal experiences of a friend or family member needing an organ donation or transplant, so we’re happy that we’re able to support this worthwhile cause.”
On the golf classic planning committee are numerous recipients of a donated heart, kidney, liver, pancreas or corneas. Committee member Rich Cooper, who had only days to live when he received a liver transplant in 2009, remembered, “Knowing I was dying, it was such a challenge relying on the grace of an unknown family or individual.”
Because of Cooper’s role as volunteer assistant varsity basketball coach for Lake Norman High School, he had become acquainted with McKillop before his surgery. Cooper’s plight touched the Wildcats coach, who used that observation to touch the golfers, Simmons reported.
Cooper and Simmons said they would like to see Save A Life Group focus future efforts on helping patients pay for the high cost of the pre- and post-operative medications.
“The cost of the meds in the first year after surgery can be brutal,” Cooper said. “It impacts the ability of some patients to afford their utilities and other bills. Although I had health insurance coverage at the time, I noticed that the cost of the medications was more than $10,000 per month. If there’s a complication, like the virus I contracted, the cost can be much higher during that time.”
In the meantime, committee members – Steve Granger for one – continue to promote organ donation. Granger said, “I liken organ donation to God giving life.”
He said he is happy that in North Carolina “The Heart Prevails” law, in place since 2007, prevents families from overriding the decision made by an individual who had agreed to donate organs. The heart icon on one’s driver’s license indicates the intention.
Granger said he enjoys a very special relationship with his donor family and, in fact, is on a team at the golf tournament with some of them.
Between now and the Oct. 12 event, Simmons said people can find him and other recipients showing off his award-winning Second Chance Chili on Sept. 26 at The Great Chili Cook-off in Mooresville, or at a fall panel discussion being planned with the Davidson College Vann Center for Ethics.
“And I would be happy to speak to any groups about our mission.”
Suzanne Fulton is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
To participate in the golf tournament or be a sponsor, visit www.SaveALifeGolfClassic.org, or contact Simmons at 704-699-3046 or email@example.com.