On a beautiful autumn afternoon this past Sunday, a very unique gathering took place at a home on the north side of Ames.
According to the Iowa Donor Network, this is the first time in the state of Iowa that all of the recipients of one organ donor have gotten together at one time with members of the donor’s family.
“It (the gathering) is really amazing…rare…unique,” said Meg Rodriguez, donation services coordinator for the Iowa Donor Network, who along with her co-worker, Sarah Jaschen, professional outreach coordinator for the Iowa Donor Network, attended the gathering, which was held at the home of Mary and Don Perry.
The gathering commemorated the one-year observance of Mary and Don’s grandson Teddy Perry, who was a resident of Ames, dying and then becoming a hero as his viable organs — heart, lungs, liver and two kidneys — gave five people a new lease on life.
Even as Rodriguez talked about the uniqueness of the gathering, she said she wasn’t surprised by it. From the moment she first met Joanie Zavala, Teddy’s mother, at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines on Oct. 18, 2017, she knew the Perry family was special. Teddy, 19, was transported to Iowa Methodist that day after he shot himself in the head along a gravel road north of Nevada, and from the minute his mother found out he was not going to survive, she asked about donating his organs.
Rodriguez, who talks with families at hospitals after these types of tragedies, remembers heading to Iowa Methodist at about 11 o’clock that night.
“Nothing about Teddy’s family is the norm,” she said.
Over the past year, the Perry family has been an inspiration to many people because of the openness they’ve demonstrated by talking publicly about the issues of bullying (which Teddy experienced), suicide and organ donation.
In fact, just a few days before Sunday’s gathering happened, the Perry family was again forced to face a difficult situation, when Teddy’s memorial site — the place where he shot himself along that gravel road north of Nevada — was vandalized with gunshots and other destruction.
“The vandalism that was done to my son’s site the other day is almost more than I could take in,” Joanie said Sunday. “It was complete disrespect for my son and my family on the one-year anniversary of his death. But now that we’ve gotten to have this huge positive moment in our lives, just a few days after (the vandalism), is a true blessing.”
Everything about Sunday gave Joanie the assurance to believe “Teddy is watching over each and every one of us,” she noted.
As each of the five recipients of Teddy’s organs arrived, they were greeted with hugs from Teddy’s family members.
“I feel fortunate, it’s kind of special (to be part of it),” said Ed Melde, 66, of Dubuque. Melde, who received Teddy’s heart, is the oldest of all the recipients. He said the Perry family members have welcomed him ever since he got their first letter (which families who want to know recipients write and then those letters are delivered to the recipients via the Iowa Donor Network).
“I wanted to get to know them,” Melde said.
He wasn’t the only one. Each of the other recipients connected with the family over the past year. The other recipients include: Bob Dilley, 60, of Webster City, who received Teddy’s liver; Jesse Gisel, 32, of Davenport, who received one of Teddy’s kidneys; Elizabeth Wehrle, 28, of New Sharon, who received both of Teddy’s lungs and Chandler Webb, 22, of Norwalk, who received Teddy’s other kidney.
As unique as the gathering that they all came to was, it was also rare, the Iowa Donor Network representatives said, that all five recipients have made it to the one-year mark of their organ transplants with no rejection of the organs.
In the year since Teddy’s suicide, his mother, Joanie, and his grandmother, Mary, have become active in causes that they have learned more about because of Teddy’s suicide.
It wasn’t long after his death that the two attended a volunteer orientation to work with the Iowa Donor Network. “Most families do not volunteer that soon,” Jaschen said, adding that many families get involved eventually, but Joanie and Mary wanted to jump in quickly.
Joanie and Mary also came to a staff meeting of the Iowa Donor Network to talk with staff and share their story.
The two say that getting involved has helped them, as much as it might be helping others.
“I want to be open,” Joanie said. “Everybody grieves differently; I want to be Teddy’s voice.”
Mary said she’s always been a very open and honest person. She said she grew up in a family that kept too many secrets. “You can’t heal if you aren’t open,” Mary said.
Mary and Joanie have also gotten involved in a support group, Survivors of Loss to Suicide, and its corresponding organization, called All For One, which works on suicide awareness, prevention and treatment initiatives across the state.
Jeff Brookes of Ankeny, who heads up the support group and prevention organization, was among the many friends who attended the Perry gathering Sunday.
“I’m a veteran and I used to work with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) victims and combat veterans and their families,” he said. The work he did was only with veterans, until earlier this year when his best friend, who was not a veteran, committed suicide in March. After that, “we opened our group to everyone,” Brookes said.
And in April, Mary and Joanie joined.
“That they’ve chosen to do this and to help others is awesome,” Brookes said. “Because until you’ve suffered a loss (to suicide), there are no words (to describe it).”
Brookes said the suicide support group he leads meets monthly, on the third Saturday, in Ankeny at the Ankeny Free Church. Anyone needing this support is welcome. About All For One, he said, “We’re a ‘boots on the ground’ organization.’ We’ll actually show up at the home (of someone struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts)… We’ll meet with families and talk to them and share with them that ‘Hey, this is where your loved one is at.’”
So many connections
Teddy could never have known the connections that his death would bring about. But his family and friends believe he’s watching over everything that has happened this past year.
Gisel, the recipient of one of Teddy’s kidneys, was the last of the five recipients to meet Teddy’s family. In fact, Joanie met him for the first time earlier Sunday morning, before the gathering that afternoon.
“It was long overdue,” Gisel admitted as he sat at a table in the Perry’s garage. “I’m always the kind of person that needs to let things sink in (for a while).”
He admitted, however, that he was really moved by what he witnessed Sunday with all the other organ recipients there. “I’m realizing how much his (Teddy’s) death made all these people’s lives better. It’s eye-opening … that his death, sad as that was, could bring so many other people happiness.”
Gisel continued, “I never really thought too much of it (organ donation) before, but I’m now (signed on to be) an organ donor too.”
Melde understands the hesitancy that Gisel felt at first about reaching out and needing time to let things sink in.
“At first it was kind of strange … kind of surreal, like I was in somebody else’s body,” Melde said. “Then, finally, I got my bearings.”
Mary calls her grandson a “superhero.” She also posted on Facebook before the gathering started that she needed to forgive the person or people who vandalized her grandson’s memorial site earlier in the week so that she could “move forward.”
It is that same type of forgiveness that allowed herself and her daughter to forgive how Teddy left them — they know he was struggling with depression — and move forward in their lives with love and understanding for others.
The Iowa Donor Network representatives reported Sunday that Teddy Perry’s picture is now on display at Iowa Methodist, where he’s honored on the Wall of Heroes, right outside the hospital’s atrium.
“My heart feels full,” Joanie said after Sunday’s gathering with family, friends, and Teddy’s organ recipients and their families had ended. “I feel that each one of these recipients were hand-picked by Teddy, just because of the fact that they are all as amazing as can be.”
Joanie added, “I truly love each one of them, along with their families. I feel as if they’ve been in our family this whole time.”