I have lived a blessed life having overcome medical challenges. It started at the age of 8 with chemotherapy to rid the cancer from my lymph nodes. Almost 2 years of chemo and radiation with side effects that would change my life. My pancreas stopped working at age 14 and I became insulin dependent. I maintained good health while playing high school and college football. I had no problems staying in shape but lost my left eye to a staph infection when I was 29.
My first brush with death was a pulmonary embolism and as my kidneys failed my blood pressure shot up. I started dialysis as another season of coaching football kicked off. The pre-transplant labs revealed 2 “leaky” valves in my heart with no blockage. The cardiologist speculated that this and other organ damage could be long-term side effects from chemo and radiation. My second brush was when the valves were replaced and 2 days later, I died. I was “down” for 7 minutes while the amazing miracle workers of UPMC Montefiore.(Pittsburgh, PA) brought me back. An emergency pacemaker followed by 4-day coma followed by 6 more weeks. I got out and 10 days later flew to Dallas with my team to watch them play in Texas Stadium. In November of 2008, my name was added to the lists as a candidate for transplant.
On Saturday, February 13, 2010, the phone rang and I recognized the number. I took a deep breath and answered. The voice said they had a donor that was a 16-year-old boy who had been in a car accident. I proceeded immediately to the hospital. My father and I were there within the hour with my sister and mother shortly thereafter. All that afternoon we were instructed it could be soon. At 8:00 p.m., we were told it would be tomorrow. My family always made medical situations manageable and we collectively put our faith in the right places. My family knew this was a means to a 2nd chance at life for me.
On my way to the hospital, I had sent out a mass text message via cell phone to friends and family who wanted to know when things were happening. It read,” Headed 2 hospital 4 transplants. Pray 4 donors family in this difficult time. No need 2 reply. HE carries me thru.”
The “HE carries me thru” reference had been my rally cry which I shared with whoever blessed me on the transplant road. I adapted the phrase from the last line of the well-known short story, “Footprints.” In the story, a man and GOD walk along a beach reviewing the man’s life. The man questions GOD as to why at the most difficult times there were just one set of footprints in the sand. GOD’s simple reply, “My child, it was then I carried you.” I had enough difficult times to know, that despite people calling me “courageous,” I knew I’d been “carried thru.”
One friend, Rev. David Paul, sent back a text in reply referencing the prayers that would be lifted up for the donor and his family. David also told me to realize this would be the last night we, my donor and I, would be on earth together. I knew then that I would live every day in honor of the gift given me. I knew I’d have that scar to remind me of the life that gave me a 2nd chance.
The next day was Sunday, February 14th, National Organ Donor Day, which was a truly fitting day to receive a transplant. On this day of celebration, I would come to Love a young man I never met. To Love the parents who showed Love while in the depths of grief. To Love every sweet breath for the rest of my life while I honor my donor’s memory. On that day of Love, it was GOD and my donor that “carried me thru.”
On February 6, 2012, the day after I watched 2 of my former players lose in the Super Bowl, I got a phone call from the Center for Organ Recovery and Education.(C.O.R.E. SW PA O.P.O.) The parents of my donor wanted to meet so we started the paperwork. On Friday, May 11, what would have been Justin’s(my donor) Senior Prom and two days before Mother’s Day, I met Scott, (Donor Dad) Rhonda,(Donor Mom) and Courtney(Donor Sister) with my immediate family. I put out my hand as Rhonda and I met but she blurted through her tears “Sorry, We’re huggers.” My Mom shrieked, “We are too.” We were immediate family and have been very close since.
I speak, write and am an advocate for organ donation. I am done coaching high school football and enjoy watching young men I have coached players in the NFL and others being successes in all walks of life.
I live every day for Justin, so all my actions honor Him. I’ve learned life doesn’t always happen when we want and we have to wait, but for me, it all happens Justin Time.
Connect with Joe: @RealJoeLafferty