Bogalusa man’s life cut short, but he lives on in organ recipient

Published 9:11 am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jewel Byrd Vernon of Bogalusa lost her son, Terry Duane Byrd, when he was just 36 years old. But because Terry was an organ donor, he lives on. And since one of the recipients felt moved to track her down so he could express his tremendous appreciation for the extraordinary gift, Vernon now has another son, birthed by another mother.

“I call her Mama Jewel,” said Kenneth Wayne “Buddy” Kelley of Florence, Miss. “I have a whole new family now.”

Kelley was working as a generator technician in August 2009, but his liver was failing fast.

“I worked until the last minute because I needed the insurance,” he said. “I got to where the doctor told me I had about two weeks to live. I could only walk 30 or 40 feet before I had to stop and rest.

“I had made my final arrangements and everything. I had only been on the list for three weeks. God had a hand in it right off the bat. I’m trying to live up to His expectations now.”

Kelley made it known that if he got the call while he was at work, he’d be gone. And he was called in twice as a backup for the patient who had been determined to be the best match for an available liver.

“I went for seconds twice,” Kelley said. “I got all prepped. Tubes were put in, and I was ready. But I didn’t get it. They took the tubes out and sent me home. It wasn’t my turn. I was happy for the people who did get them.

“And my turn came. The hardest part is every year at that time I realize that somebody had to die so I could live.”

Terry Byrd was a member of the Bogalusa High School Class of 1990. His mother describes him as an easygoing, friendly workaholic and good provider.

“He wasn’t a real church going person, but he loved people,” Vernon said. “He loved to be around people. He felt like he wanted somebody to be able to use something of his if anything happened to him.”

One Saturday in the summer of 2009 something did happen.

“My son was working in Slidell,” Vernon said. “He worked for SDT disposal. He had an aneurism, and they took him to Slidell Memorial Hospital and put him on a respirator. In less than 24 hours he was gone.”

She had received a call from Byrd’s girlfriend telling her that he’d come from work and got sick. Vernon told her to dial 911, and she raced to be with her son. It took her 45 minutes to get to Slidell.

By that time, although he was on a respirator, Vernon believes Terry had already stepped beyond this life.

“I know he was gone,” she said. “He had the prettiest smile on his face.

“They transferred him to Ochsner the same night, and on Sunday morning they took him off the respirator to see if he could breathe on his own. After about 15 minutes they said he died. But I know he was already gone.”

Byrd had noted on his driver’s license that he wanted to be an organ donor, and he’d let his family know of those wishes. Kelley was one of many to benefit from his forethought and generosity.

Vernon does not know the identity of the others because the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency handles the matches and only facilitates contact upon recipient request. She said when LOPA called and told her that Kelley wanted to communicate it was a blessing and a big relief.

Kelley insists he’s the one who is blessed.

He credits his benefactor with prompting his return to his faith and with “several miracles,” including the apparent eradication of what he had been told was an incurable disease, hepatitis C.

And Kelley said he feels Byrd’s presence within.

“Some people say that when you get an organ transplant you don’t get the other person’s traits,” he said. “That’s a lie. Before, I did not like sweets. Now I would kill for them. And Terry was real tenderhearted, wasn’t he? Now he is a part of me. He is still alive.”

Now Kelley has Byrd on his Facebook page under the caption of “My Hero,” and he changes his profile picture to one of his donor “at least two times a year out of respect.” When he participates in runs for organ donation awareness, he wears a button bearing Byrd’s likeness.

“All of my friends know he’s a part of me,” Kelley said. “We’re one now. There is a lot of change in me, and I realize it’s because of him. It’s all positive.”

He said his grandson was born two years ago on Byrd’s birthday, Dec. 29, and he believes that one day God will introduce him to his angel in heaven.

In the meantime, Kelley urges everyone to become an organ donor and to alert family members that they have made that decision. He said he knows people who have died while waiting years for a match.

His wife, Katherine, now suffers from liver problems and expects to be added to the list some day in the future.

Kelley said he plans to donate any organs he can when his time comes “so when I am gone, I will live on in someone else.” He genuinely knows what that means and wants to pay Byrd’s great gift forward.

Vernon believes her son feels the appreciation of Kelley and the anonymous others whose lives were extended when his was cut short.

“I believe he knows,” she said. “He gave me Buddy as my son. It’s the way it was meant to be.”

For additional information on LOPA, visit online.