In early 2013, Gary Simmons was near death, but a liver transplant saved his life.
That life-changing event gave him the motivation to establish the Save A Life Group, a newly formed nonprofit that will host its inaugural Save A Life Golf Classic Oct. 6 at Trump National Golf Club in Mooresville.
Simmons’ nonprofit consists of about 20 volunteers, 14 of whom are organ recipients. The group will work with LifeShare of the Carolinas, which was designated by the federal government to facilitate organ transplants in southwestern North Carolina and has been involved with organ and tissue donation for more than four decades, according to its website. LifeShare serves as a bridge between donors and donor families and patients that are in urgent need.
Simmons, a Davidson resident, Vietnam veteran and the founder/chairman for Save A Life, said the goal of the tournament is to increase organ donor registration in the United States. He expects up to 100 golfers to participate and hopes to raise at least $30,000 to help spread awareness about the importance of organ donation.
Someone gets added to the organ donation list every 10 minutes, according to organdonor.gov. Nearly 80 people get organ transplants every day, while an average of 18 people die waiting for transplants.
There are roughly 123,000 patients who need a life-saving organ, according to the website. In 2013, 28,953 people received organ transplants. More than 3,000 people are waiting for transplants in North Carolina, according to Donate Life North Carolina.
“The myths of organ donation have to be overcome,” said Simmons. “There is no research, trials or testing required. Our mission is to educate people about organ donation so when the DMV examiner asks, ‘Would you like to be an organ donor?’ They can emphatically say, ‘yes.’ ”
The group plans to offer public presentations, workshops and seminars and other outreach activities to establish a template for success that other regions of the country can emulate.
“Our society needs much more education, as we one day may be in a state where the supply of required donors will meet, or exceed, the demand, that prevents anyone from dying due to organs with diseases,” said Simmons. “The sooner the education and awareness occurs, the quicker we save lives.”
Eric Trump, son of Donald Trump, is expected to attend, as is Davidson Collge’s basketball coach Bob McKillop, the emcee, and NASCAR driver Bobby Allison, the honorary chair. Nearly 40 volunteers – many of whom are recipients, donors or donor family members – helped organize the event.
Organs from Allison’s son, Davey, helped save four lives after his helicopter crashed at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. Simmons said Davey’s widow, Liz, told him it was a heart-wrenching decision to donate, but so many beautiful stories of people being saved came out of it.
Given a second chance
Bobby Height Sr., 70, has lived in Charlotte for about 40 years with his wife, Brenda.
The heart recipient has shared his story at health fairs, the Division of Motor Vehicles, hospitals, churches and other events. He is a member of the Save A Life Group’s event committee who will serve as an advocate/volunteer at the tournament.
“I appreciate that I was given a second chance at life and, in return, I want to help save lives,” he said. “I love to encourage, inspire, uplift and motivate others to be organ donors and to show them me as an example of how donation saved my life, as well as others.”
Height was drafted as an outfielder by the New York Yankees in the 47th round of the 1966 MLB June Amateur Draft. The Shaw University student’s professional career never took off because of a knee injury.
But Height went on he became a high school health and physical education teacher, as well as a basketball coach. He was inducted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame in 1993.
One morning in 2003, Height got dizzy, passed out and was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with cardiomyophathy, or an unhealthy heart.
For years, he was treated by doctors for asthma and sleep apnea. In July 2007, he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare and fatal disease caused by insoluble deposits of protein fibers.
While waiting for a transplant, roughly 2,000 others nationwide were also waiting for a heart, he said. But three months later, a heart became available; today, he no longer has asthma or sleep apnea.
“I am alive today because someone said ‘yes’ to the generous gift of donating life, so that I might have a second chance in fulfilling my life’s purpose,” Height said. “Now I live for two people: myself and my donor. Today, I am making a difference in people’s lives.”
While illness and injury make transplants necessary, Height said donors make them possible.
“The need for donors is real in all ages,” he said. “I encourage (everyone) to consider becoming an organ donor. It truly saves lives and gives hope.”
Richard Cooper, 56, has been a Mooresville resident for 15 years. Originally from Long Island, N.Y., the liver recipient became involved with the tournament while volunteering for LifeShare.
“There are thousands of people in North Carolina on the transplant waiting list who have the same hopes and dreams I had of a second chance at life,” he said.
His journey toward a liver transplant began in 1986. After extensive blood tests, he learned all his liver function tests were abnormal. Shortly after, he moved to Mooresville, where he connected with a hepatologist who concluded he had auto-immune hepatitis.
“My body was deteriorating at such a slow pace, you hardly noticed,” said Cooper. “Then in October of 2009, the symptoms starting moving like a high-speed train. I was moved up on the transplant list and was listed for only four days.”
A match for his liver was found a month later.
“I am a very different person than I was before my surgery,” said Cooper. “Things that used to bother me are like water off a duck’s back.”