- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

LOGANSPORT, Ind. (AP) - Kaye Simmons and Bill Coldwell have only known each other for about 10 years, but they say it’s felt like much longer.

Coldwell cracks jokes and tells stories of growing up in the South. Simmons listens, laughs and jokes back, as if they’re brother and sister.

The two hold a special connection - something only a handful of people have. Coldwell’s heart belongs to Simmons‘ twin brother, whose name was also Bill - Bill Vernon. He died at the age of 31 in a car crash between Logansport and Royal Center. Vernon was an organ donor.

Simmons said she’s grateful someone like Coldwell, and others who have received Vernon’s organs, got a second chance at life, despite the tragedy of her brother’s death.

“He’s always with us,” she said.

On April 1, 2005, Bill Vernon, or “Billy” as many called him, was driving on U.S. 35 to Pioneer Jr.-Sr. High School, where he had taught since 2000. He stopped on the side of the road to help a man whose vehicle had broken down. As he backed up his car to pull over, a pickup truck collided into the back of Vernon’s car.

Vernon was airlifted to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne and spent three days in intensive care before he died at 11 a.m. April 4. Simmons said doctors procured his organs later in the day.

Just across town at Lutheran Hospital, Coldwell, who had a heart attack a couple months prior at age 61, had been waiting for a new heart for about 11 weeks. Spring was starting up, and Coldwell, who was attached to tubes and machines in his hospital room, was anxious to leave and enjoy the warm weather.

At 1 a.m. April 5, Coldwell received good news - he got a heart, Vernon’s 31-year-old heart. Doctors performed the heart transplant after the organ was transported from Parkview to Lutheran. Following a few days of recovery at the hospital, Coldwell could finally go home.

“I didn’t know how it was going to work out or anything,” he said. “But I was very happy that the heart came in.”

A couple weeks after Vernon died, the Indiana Donor Network notified the family of people who received his organs. Simmons‘ mom, Diane Vernon, penned handwritten notes to each person, telling them about her son and also included a photo of him.

Only one recipient wrote back: Coldwell.

“I thought that if you can … track your family down and make that connection, if nothing else, just to say thank you,” Coldwell said.

After letters and phone calls back and forth with Diane Vernon, Coldwell decided to visit Logansport. It was Sunday, May 13, 2007 - Mother’s Day. He, his sister and brother in-law made the hour-and-a-half drive to the Vernon residence. Coldwell was supposed to call that day, but his sister had the idea of instead meeting the family in person.

“I’m glad we did go,” he said. “I really am.”

Simmons said she and her sister were outside tending to the garden when a car pulled up and a man walked out asking if Diane was home.

“He just said, ‘I’m Bill,’ and it was honestly like the whole world stopped,” Simmons said. “We knew exactly who that was.”

Coldwell brought a small bouquet of flowers for Diane Vernon. Looking back on it, he’s not sure why he chose to pick up flowers or come on Mother’s Day. During their visit, Simmons said her mom kept her hand on Coldwell’s chest, close to his heart.

“He shows up with flowers for mom, not knowing that Billy was such a mama’s boy,” Simmons said.

“That’s Billy coming out of me, I guess,” Coldwell added.

Diane Vernon passed away in September 2015, and Simmons‘ father, Bill Vernon Sr., who served as Logansport mayor from 1992 to 1999, died in December 2004, just a few months prior to their son.

Simmons said she remembers her mom’s initial shock upon meeting Coldwell and the happiness and gratitude she shared, too.

“It was just very comfortable from the first time we met. It was almost like we’ve known (him) forever,” Simmons said about meeting Coldwell.

Dr. John Carl Jones delivered and cared for thousands of kids during more than three decades as a pediatrician and obstetrician in Logansport. Two of them were Vernon and Simmons. Jones died in 2009 at the age of 85.

A year prior, Coldwell started seeing a couple of cardiologists at Lutheran for his frequent checkups of his new heart. That included Dr. Mark Jones, the son of Dr. John Carl Jones. He’s been working in Fort Wayne since 1979.

Coldwell is the only patient that Mark Jones knows who is connected to his father. He didn’t realize that until about 2012.

“He would’ve been thrilled,” he said.

Jones said even though Coldwell has a heart 30 years younger than he is, he still has to stay as active as possible and take medication. Coldwell said he’s grateful that Vernon kept healthy as a 31-year-old who had a daily routine of exercise.

“We couldn’t do transplants if it wasn’t for donors,” Jones added. “Donors are respected. Donors are necessary for other people to live.”

When Simmons and Vernon turned 27 years old, they went to the BMV to renew their licenses. Vernon saw that Simmons wasn’t an organ donor, so he gave her a hard time about it. So, Simmons signed up. It’s not that she didn’t want to be an organ donor, she said - it’s that no one ever asked her at the BMV.

Vernon’s desire to be an organ donor came from his love of helping others, Simmons said. He coached Little League baseball, volunteered at the Special Olympics, worked for the Logansport Parks and Recreation Department over summer break and did whatever else he could for Pioneer schools.

Once, Simmons said her brother modeled for a fashion show at Pioneer. Another time, he was a chorus member for the school play since they needed more cast members. The high school later hosted his funeral in the gymnasium.

“He was so generous, giving and hilarious,” Simmons said.

The day that Vernon died, a couple of those close to him told the Pharos-Tribune in an article that they knew he would keep on helping others even after his death.

Bob Brock, who was principal at Pioneer at the time, told his students on the day of Vernon’s death that their teacher was an organ donor. “If he had something he could give you, he would,” he said, “and he certainly is now. I couldn’t be prouder of him.”

Kathy Scott, a parks department employee, said there “are an awful lot of lucky people who will live on though Billy … He cared about being healthy, and the people who get his organs will be very special.”

Not only do Coldwell and Vernon now share the same heart, first name and lineage of doctors, they both are linked to Pioneer. For Vernon, it was the high school. For Coldwell, he was born in the small town of Pioneer, Kentucky.

“We had a lot of similarities there, I’m telling you, really eerie,” Coldwell said.

“I think he may have handpicked you,” Simmons added.

Simmons and Coldwell meet up about once a year at the hospital’s Christmas party for organ donor families and recipients, and they call each other often. In years past, they’ve visited for birthday parties and other get-togethers.

Coldwell celebrates three birthdays each year: his own, Vernon’s and his heart transplant date. He keeps the photo of Vernon he received 12 years ago in his wallet and stores the letters he wrote to Diane Vernon organized in an envelope in his bedroom.

“That was very important for her, to sit down and write a letter … and send a picture of him to every single recipient,” Simmons said about her mom. “It was important for her to make sure that they knew who he was and that kept him even more alive in her world.”

“And to hear from (Coldwell), especially, meant so much. It’s the core of who he was,” she said about her brother’s heart. “And then a guy named Bill shows up. Like really? Bill got Bill’s heart. How do you keep that straight?”


Source: (Logansport) Pharos-Tribune, https://bit.ly/2nOxeE2


Information from: Pharos-Tribune, https://www.pharostribune.com

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