by Kyla Hurt
April is National Donate Life Month. According to donatelife.net, “National Donate Life Month (NDLM) was established by Donate Life America and its partnering organizations in 2003. Observed in April each year, National Donate Life Month helps raise awareness about donation, encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and to honor those that have saved lives through the gift of donation.”
This year, National Donate Life Month features multiple activities to encourage organ donor registration. NDLM “Blue & Green Day” is Friday, April 22. On that day, people are encouraged to where those colors and “to engage in sharing the Donate Life message and promoting the importance of registering as an organ, eye and tissue donor.” Also, National Pediatric Transplant Week is April 24-30. Much of the idea is to foster awareness through a dedicated month, hopefully encouraging people to register and “to honor those that have saved lives through the gift of donation.”
One local father, husband, realtor and more is very aware of the importance of NDLM and shares a part of his life with readers. Clay Yates was told that his heart was failing — that’s how his transplant story began.
Read his account of how it all started in the following inset article, which was originally printed in the April 1-7, 2021, edition of The Source Newspaper.
Date of Birth: 1/15/1988
Date of Organ Donation: 8/30/2019
Organ Donation story: I was diagnosed with heart failure on July 11, 2019. It was just the month prior to the diagnosis that I started to notice shortness of breath and mild fatigue.
I first experienced it when on vacation in Colorado, but assumed it was due to the elevation, etc. However, when we returned home the shortness of breath worsened, especially when lying down to sleep at night. After consulting with family in the medical field, I decided to head to the doctor.
The nurse practitioner I spoke with was also very concerned with my symptoms. She ordered a CT scan with contrast to be completed at Memorial in Springfield. Little did I know this would be my first of many CT scans. I returned to work after completing the testing. I expected they would call in a few days with little to report. I was wrong.
I’m a real estate agent and I was on my way to show a house when I received the call from Memorial. The voice on the other end of the phone was seemingly nervous to tell me the results. She informed me that my heart was enlarged, and my lungs were taking on fluid. She insisted I got to the emergency room right away. As you can imagine, this came as quite a surprise.
Within a few hours of that phone call, I was admitted to Memorial with a diagnosis of heart failure. The next few days were full of testing, medications, and more testing. I was eventually transferred by ambulance to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. This turned out to be my home away from home for the next two months.
The doctors at Barnes were fantastic. It was obvious that they were seeing several heart failure patients each day. This brought a sense of confidence that I was in the right place. I would be in and out of the hospital for the next few weeks, staying in close communication with my cardiologist.
The plan was to try a series of medications to improve my heart function. Unfortunately, the meds did not work as we had hoped. I would soon be admitted to Barnes for the last time. Fortunately, this time I was able to have my dad drive me down and not have to ride in the back of an ambulance. For me, this car ride felt different. I knew my health was deteriorating quickly. Simply walking to the truck was a chore. That was never the case before.
A few days later I was told that I was a great candidate for a heart transplant. That is when things got hard for my wife and family. No one expected this would ever be the case. Unfortunately, it had been lurking in the back of my mind for the couple of weeks prior.
I was placed on the transplant list on Monday, August 26th, 2019. I was placed towards the top of the list based on the severity of my condition. By that Friday I was wheeled down the hall by a team of doctors to receive my new heart. The surgery took 10 hours to complete. Luckily, I was asleep, so it just felt like a few minutes to me. Ha. I cannot imagine the stress and anxiety experienced by my family as they huddled in the ICU waiting room waiting for the call.
The first few moments after I woke up were likely the best my life. I had made it. I was of confident in the team of doctors, but there were many what ifs to think about. Being greeted by my wife, kids, and family was very special to say the least.
It was now time for me to put in the work to recover. I began doing breathing exercises and walking every day, every couple of hours. I returned home just eight days after receiving my new heart. The picture with my wife and kids was taken just minutes after I arrived home. This photo will always be close to my heart. No pun intended.
Family and other personal information you wish to share:
Jenna (wife), Easton and Reid (sons)
Caron and Greg (parents)
Brett and Tiffany (brother and sister)
I am very fortunate to have had my family with me every step of the way. They spent countless hours in the hospital with me. Each of them played their own role in the process. All were appreciated.
Any other information you wish to share about Organ Donation:
I am here today because of someone’s selfless decision to become an organ donor. I can never repay this person, but I will do my best to make them proud by spreading awareness for Organ Donation.
The photo to which he refers can be seen in the accompanying images to this piece; the renewed sense of life can be seen on his face. Yates’ narrative is one that has changed his life forever and he has recently added a new chapter to it when he met the parents and some family members face-to-face of the donor whose gift of a heart kept Yates’ life beating on.
Additionally, television station FOX4 Kansas City ran a news story about the meet, and it can be found by entering “Kearney father hears son’s heartbeat after life-saving donation to Illinois man” in the search bar on the station’s website, www.fox4kc.com.
Taylor Joseph Ware had been a Corporal E-4 Radar Technician in the United States Marine Corps. Born in 1995, his death on August 28, 2019, offered Clay Yates the heart he needed. Amazingly, there are some very interesting connections between the two. Ware had only signed up to be a donor in the month prior — Yates found out that he needed a transplant last minute as well. Ware also went to high school in Clay County. Also, Yates has signed up to play in the Transplant Games of America; Yates is heading out to San Diego to compete in the Donate Life Transplant Games July 29-August 3. Yates adds, “I play golf, right, and the course that we’re playing is at the base that he worked at … yeah, just randomly … I had looked at [the location] and thought, ‘Gosh, that sounds so familiar,’ and then, oh wow, I put it together … there’s a lot of golf courses in the world and it’s there.”
The seemingly already set and ongoing interconnections are unique. Yates personally retells moments about the initial meet, having connected with the donor’s parents, who live in Kansas City. Yates met them on December 11, 2021, when he and his wife, Jenna, paid a visit. “The whole thing was intense, right. I’m not a crier, be there was a lot of crying going on,” explains Yates.
Taylor Ware’s dad, Thomas Ware, opened the door and Yates laughs a bit about how he introduced himself, knowing that every person in there knew exactly who he was. There was a rush of emotion. Jenna and Clay Yates met members of Ware’s family and his parents; the time allowed Ware’s family to share precious memories about him and meet the man who now holds a second chance at life. Clay Yates especially formed a relationship with his donor’s dad: “So, I’ve spoken to him on the phone once or twice before. Going up there to meet him, it went well … it was, it was something that I, I mean we, maybe both needed? It’s really hard to explain, like the feelings of knowing it all … everything about your donor.”
Yates pauses to express that he didn’t want the explanation to sound cold. He continues, “Knowing all this back story, I mean it makes you sad, right? Like, hey, I’m here. He’s not … but, knowing so many details about it is tricky for me, right? Because before, it was you just, you always wondered and you wanted to know, but then all of a sudden … you know, right? It’s like, imagine me sending you that link [to the Facebook page, ‘Remembering Taylor Ware, United States Marine Veteran], but imagine me giving that knowing that I have his heart, and then next thing you know I’m stuck in this thing. Going through pictures of his friends, you know … whoa, it’s like a time warp, right? Like, I know this guy, right? Like, he could be my friend, right? So (Yates takes in a breath), so that experience was intense … reading the letter and then seeing the pictures … I don’t know. Yeah, something that you obviously want, but maybe you’re not prepared for in that moment, right?”
When Yates wrote that letter, he was hoping to connect. He says meeting them was helpful mostly and conclusive. Yates says of the experience for Ware’s dad, “For him, I think it was really great to pull some bit of happiness from, you know, the tragic event … In being there with him, I feel like he’d been stuck in a very bad state like nothing happy has happened since that day, right? That was the impression that I got, and I was so thankful to do something to make him at least smile for a moment.”
According to Mid-America Transplant, the nonprofit regional organ and tissue procurement organization covering eastern Missouri, southern Illinois and northeast Arkansas with which they worked, a donor recipient is only allowed to contact the family of the donor after one year has passed. Mid-America Transplant would not coordinate passage of any message from Yates until then, allowing Ware’s family to grieve. Yates says, “They don’t have to respond at all [to the letter] or they could respond, and then ultimately release contact information. In this case, [Ware’s dad, Thomas] responded to the letter and then included some pictures, ultimately saying that he’d be open to meeting. Then, I have the option to provide my contact information or ‘sign off on it,’ … so I just got on Facebook and sent him a message … he jumped at it.”
Yates had spoken to donor’s dad, Thomas Ware, once or twice on the phone before going to meet him and more of the family. About 30 minutes in, Ware listened to his son’s heart beating in Yates’ chest with the help of a stethoscope that Yates had brought — he immediately started to tear up. “He listens to it every time I see him, so that’s cool,” smiles Yates. They next went to Taylor Ware’s gravesite, a place Thomas Ware visits twice a day, once on the way to and then again on his return from work. The family shared more stories and after that, everyone went to dinner together and the news pieced was recorded last.
Yates and Ware keep in contact; the two talk once a week at least. The two have joined in on the other’s sporting likes. Yates even found out that Ware had never gone to a Blues game, so coupling that with the fact that Ware wanted to meet Yates’ family, they all met up on January 29.
How does one find words to describe the initial meeting of the person who now holds your loved one’s heart? The meet was understatedly quite an experience. The bond since created between Thomas Ware and Yates is something extraordinary — truly a matter of the heart.
Yates now volunteers in every way possible at the Heart Transplant Association of St. Louis and advocates for anyone who can to sign up to be an organ or tissue donor. He acknowledges that the transplant was a treatment and not a cure — as, and this is in the simplest terms, he takes many medications to maintain his body and says, “most days are good, but every day is different.”
“Life after is something that [people] often have a hard time adjusting to,” says Yates. Now, if he gets a cold for example, he says, “I’m down.” He takes what he calls his “forever blend” of medications every day for maintenance; there are eight pills in the morning and four and night.
Regardless, without that act of Taylor Joseph Ware signing up to be an organ and tissue donor, Clay Yates would likely not be alive today — that’s something that one cannot look past. For information, links and more about organ and tissue donation, or how to become a donor, visit www.donatelife.net.