begins in June 2003. At this time, Jeff was 22 years old and worked at a 4-star restaurant in Duluth, GA, called “Sia’s.” Jeff was hired to be a chef. He began his chef career while still in high school at Chattahoochee High School in Alpharetta. His title was “Sandwich Artist” at the local Subway. Jeff immediately fell in love with the restaurant business and after high school began working at Stoney River in Duluth. He started as a bus boy, moved up to salads, and eventually became a chef. Then he was hired by Sia.
Sia, the restaurant owner, was very community-minded and he and his staff often did charity events. On a Saturday in June 2003, Jeff volunteered his time to cook at one of these events. He was gone all day and when he arrived back home that evening, he wasn’t feeling well. The family just assumed that he had picked up a flu bug that would run its course and he would very soon be feeling like himself again. Much to our dismay, 2 or 3 days down the road, he was feeling worse. His dad took him to the emergency room at Joan Glancey Hospital in Duluth. The news was not good. His dad called home to tell the family that Jeff had contracted an unknown virus and from looking at the x-rays taken that evening, his heart was the size of a small cantaloupe. And here the story of a needed heart transplant began.
Jeff was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta where he spent the entire month of June, celebrating his 23rd birthday on June 16th. He was evaluated by the transplant team and his mom and dad were quickly introduced to the team. His name was added to the list for a heart transplant. Our lives would never be the same.
At the time, Jeff had health insurance through Sia’s and it was provided by United Health Care. But at this time, heart transplants paid for by United Health Care, could only be done at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. As can be imagined, this was going to be a huge problem for the Evans’ family. Both of Jeff’s parents were working and they simply did not have the means to maintain two households, especially if one of them had been required to quit a job in order to be with Jeff in Birmingham. And there begins the story of “The House.”
St. Joseph’s Transplant Team went immediately into action and worked out a deal with United Healthcare that Jeff could be treated at St. Joseph’s in Atlanta.
Jeff came home from the hospital on July 1, 2003, with a port in his left arm for administering all of his medications. As you can imagine, he did not like the idea of being tethered to life support. He figured out a way to keep the meds in a little backpack, which he carried with him all the time. A health care nurse was assigned to him and she visited our home three days a week. She taught Jeff how to flush the port, etc., and in very short order, Jeff took care of all of that by himself. The nurse, Dottie, became a very close friend of the Evans’ family.
Shortly after Jeff came home and after we had been informed of the cost of anti-rejection drugs ($2,000.00/month at the time), our family and friends got busy raising funds. Jeff’s mom was working at a company called AGCO in Duluth, GA. She was an Executive Administrative Assistant to four of the senior executives. They were totally on board with the fundraising and allowed it to occur within the corporation. Following is a sampling of our fundraisers.
1) Dinner at the Four Seasons Chef’s Table, donated by Rabobank Nederland, Atlanta Office. This was the bank that AGCO worked closely with. After an 8-course meal, Jeff was presented that evening with a $40,000.00 check, made totally from chocolate!
2) AGCO Corporation, the day after dinner at the Four Seasons, presented Jeff’s mom with a check in the amount of $15,000.00.
3) The Georgia Transplant Foundation, through the efforts of its founder, Tommy Smith, a personal friend of Jeff’s dad, donated $10,000.00
4) A dinner prepared by Jeff and his friend, John Dinzel, at the home of David Williams, one of Jeff’s mom’s bosses. It was an amazing six-course meal, wine with every course. After dinner, Jeff thanked the people there for allowing him to once again do what he loved to do…COOK!
5) Huge chocolate chip cookies baked by friends at AGCO and sold at the Duluth Fall Festival.
6) A BBQ lunch donated by Jan Webster, a caterer and a friend of the family, at AGCO. This actually began the fundraising and it was an amazing day.
7) Jeff sent a personal letter to many, many people, family, friends, friends of the family, etc. telling his story and asking for donations. They poured in. And Jeff wrote a personal thank you note for every dime.
8) And many, many seemingly small fundraisers done by various people, simply out of the goodness of their hearts, from cupcake sales, candy sales, cakes sales, etc.
All of the money from our fundraising was handled through the National Transplant Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee…an amazing organization.
Bottom line in regards to fundraising…Jeff raised a total of $96,000 in only six weeks. This to say that the Evans family is VERY familiar with fundraising and not afraid to just ask! We were rewarded with the gift of knowing how much people care and how generous people are. It forever changed our lives.
Several months after being put on the transplant list, Jeff got “the call.” There was a heart for him. We rushed to St Joseph’s, entering through the emergency room. Jeff was excited beyond words and announced to the receptionist that “I’m here to get my new heart.” He was admitted to the CCU and prepped for surgery. The excitement in the room was palatable. Even the nuns that came to comfort us said they just felt they weren’t needed there. Jeff was put on a gurney, his mom and dad walked with him to surgery, kissed him and left him in the care of the doctors. The transplant doctor was, at this point, enroute to harvest the heart. About one hour later (or less), a nurse came and found Jeff’s mom and dad and asked them to return to the CCU Unit. And much to their surprise, Jeff was there. THE HEART WAS NOT HEALTHLY ENOUGH TO BE TRANSPLANTED! This was, without a doubt, the worse day of the entire ordeal. Jeff cried like a baby. His disappointment was devastating. Words cannot describe the heart and soul of the Evans’ family on that evening.
Jeff was “hooked up” to the port for about a year and half, when it was determined that his heart was improving to the point that only oral meds were necessary. That was a day of much rejoicing. Jeff tried to go back to work at a newly opened restaurant in Duluth, but after only a few days, he realized that he just couldn’t do it.
For the next two, or so, years, Jeff lived as normally as possible; taking many medications. We called it our new normal. He lived with his friends and occasionally had to spend a few days in the hospital for what we referred to as “a tune-up.” He always came away from the tune-ups feeling so much better. We remember one time that he called us when we were out for dinner with friends, asking us to come immediately to take him to the hospital. He knew he needed help. We will add here that Jeff took full responsibility for his health. At times that was good and at times, not so good. He was only 23 years old at the onset of this experience and young enough to understandably believe he was invincible. However, we will say that in the three years we all lived with this, we NEVER heard one complaint out of him.
But the day came when we knew instinctively, that things were changing. He asked to move home, which he did. A doctor at St. Joseph’s had put a pace maker into Jeff’s chest (a bad experience in every way, but that’s another story). He contracted mersa and was on additional meds for that condition. He had very little energy, the whites of his eyes were turning yellow and he even said to his mom one day, “mom….I’m going to die.” Then on Sunday, August 6th, Jeff woke up knowing that he wanted to go to the hospital. His dad took him and his mom went up later in the day. He really just wanted to be left alone to sleep. On Monday, his mom was at work when she got a call that she needed to come to the hospital immediately. She was met by Dr. Jansen, Jeff’s Cardiologist, who told her that things were not looking good. A medical team was working on Jeff and they put him on a ventilator (which meant that he never spoke another word). On Tuesday, August 8th, around 3:30 p.m., Jeff peacefully took his last breath. He was surrounded by the people that loved him most. The last thing his mom said to him was, “it’s okay to go, baby; grandpa is waiting for you.”
The actual idea of “The House” was birthed eight years after Jeff passed, as his family was at a point where our grief had somewhat subsided and we were able to bring to the forefront something that had been in the back of our minds for all those intervening years. We thought about what would have made our life easier during our experience. We were reminded about the possibility of having to move to Birmingham and what that hardship would have added to our journey. And we thought that there must be transplant patients and their families that are facing a similar situation in Atlanta. And our conclusion was this: what would have made our journey easier would have been an affordable place, in a comfortable home setting, in a location near to the hospital to lay our heads at night and to live as “normal” of a life as possible under very difficult circumstances.
Now one last story and this is where the idea of “doing something” to honor Jeff was birthed. During the last two days of his life, as he lay in his hospital bed, his feet were always cold. So his family brought socks and took turns rubbing his feet, trying to warm them up. And at that time, his brother, Brad, said, “Mom, he deserves cashmere.” So every patient that stays at “The House,” or whose family stays at “The House,” will have a supply of cashmere socks to wear while in the hospital in memory of our Jeff.