One year ago, hundreds upon hundreds in Sampson County lined up on the Friday before Memorial Day to get barbecue plates to benefit local resident John Brown, whose liver was failing to the point it affected his brain function. He needed a transplant or he would die, and the community gave and gave.
“I lost about two years,” said John of his memory. “My wife has to tell me a lot.”
“It was sort of surreal,” wife Jackie recalled. “I knew people admired and respected John, but the outpouring was overwhelming. Just the sheer number of people … people were just so generous. They would buy plates and leave extra money.”
Exactly one year later, John and Jackie reflected back on just how good their family and friends have been, and the new lease on life given to them following John’s transplant operation in September. There were bumps in the road — John didn’t return home until early November after some complications — but all is now well.
“It’s unbelievable,” said John, who said he doesn’t feel like a transplant patient. “I know I’m more alive and more grateful for the little things now. It floors me how much support we’ve received.”
“It’s just amazing,” Jackie added. “God is so good.”
In 2010, John was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It eventually progressed to cirrhosis, causing extreme weakness and symptoms of liver failure, including fluid accumulation in the abdomen and mental confusion — sometimes flat-out insanity — from high ammonia levels. He had 80 percent of his spleen removed to assist with blood-flow, another attempt to regulate the ammonia levels as he awaited a new liver.
An engineer by trade, John worked right up until about four years ago, when the illness drained any energy he had. He couldn’t even climb the stairs at their home on Dixie Road. In 2015 alone, John and Jackie made the 200-mile round trip to and from Chapel Hill 22 times.
Bryan Smith, whose parents have lived across the street from the Browns for three decades, has known the family most of his life. He spearheaded last year’s fundraiser. There were 22 hogs cooked and not a morsel was left.
In all, $34,000 was raised and a check for that amount was sent to the National Foundation for Transplants in Tennessee. The foundation president called, baffled, asking what was done to raise so much money in a short amount of time. John and Jackie told her.
“She said ‘this is the most money we have ever received from one person,’” John recalled.
In the months that followed the fundraiser, John’s name rose on the transplant list, until he was second in line. He was one of two people who received a call on Sept. 10 about a liver available. A second person is always called just in case the first is not a match.
John and Jackie arrived in the emergency room at around 5 p.m. that day, waiting close to seven hours before they were told the liver went to a patient at Duke. Medical staff told them not to be too discouraged, but Jackie was beside herself. She knew that some people go as many as eight times before they receive a liver, and there was no assurance when they would get another call.
“We went home and went to bed,” John recalled. “Then the phone rang again.”
It was Chapel Hill and they had another liver. John was atop the list this time.
So, on Sept. 11, they made the trek up to Chapel Hill like they did so many times before. This time it was a go. By early morning Sept. 12, John was being prepped for his transplant procedure.
Their family and friends, including Smith and Tim Ameen, their pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church, were all there in the wee hours of the morning when John was getting his transplant operation. It was a 50/50 prospect that it would take, but the mood wasn’t somber. It was grateful.
“It was such a joyous occasion,” said Jackie. “Nobody thought about what could happen.”
Eight hours later, he was out of the operating room.
“He progressed so well the next two days, that they moved him to the regular transplant floor,” Jackie said. “That’s when things started going south.”
While the liver was functioning fine, John developed atrial fibrillation and his kidneys began to weaken, problems he never had before. He was moved to the intensive care unit, where they started dialysis and a slew of ultrasounds, MRIs, CT scans followed to try to diagnose the issue. They found a bile duct where the old liver had been removed was leaking.
“They wanted to send me home with dialysis, but I wasn’t doing that,” John said.
Within the first six months of the transplant, 90 percent of people are re-hospitalized, the couple was told. While he had complications, John never left the hospital to have to return, spending seven weeks there to be treated before going home, without the dialysis.
In early November, the couple returned to their Dixie Road home, John with his new liver and a healthy body. The two spent both of their birthdays at Chapel Hill — John on Sept. 16, Jackie on Oct. 23 — but their wishes, and those of many others, had come true.
Prior to the transplant, the pain could be nearly unbearable, but coping with not being able to play with his grandchildren or minister to the many young children at church was been the toughest for John. The couple have two sons, David, who lives in Fuquay-Varina, and Jason, who resides in Greensboro. David has three sons, William, 7, Elliott, 5, and Phillip, 3.
While health insurance covered the sizable cost of the transplant operation, the funds raised were able to pay outstanding medical bills and ensure that John had the post-transplant medications, follow-up care and daily anti-rejection medications he needs to stay healthy.
“It’s unbelievable the difference a year makes,” Smith said.
He and others have recalled how the ammonia levels played with John’s mind, to the point he had to be restrained by sheriff’s deputies in his own home. The same sort of incidents happened in the hospital, where he was sedated and restrained. It was nothing he could control. His family and friends remember those incidents vividly, while John can only listen to the stories and shake his head.
A healthy John can now do what he loves again — work with the youth at Immanuel Baptist Church in Clinton, sing in the choir and play with his grandchildren, including getting to know the youngest, 3-year-old Phillip, all over again.
“He was scared of me. He now plays with me and I play with him,” John beamed. “We’re learning to get along together.”
“He’s so full of life now,” Jackie said. “He’s the John we all knew and loved before he got sick. I’m so thankful that he is healthy, but I still have a little bit of panic when I call home and he doesn’t answer. For years, I lived in constant fear on what I was going to find when I came home. I don’t know how long it will take for me to quit worrying like that.”
When the two returned to the third floor at Chapel Hill, where John had to so many times be sedated and restrained due to his toxic liver, it was all smiles and a lot of tears for the Browns and the medical staff who knew them well.
John fought back tears thinking about it, just as he does talking about the person whose liver now rests in his body.
“Somebody had to die for me to live,” said John.
That’s not lost on him or Jackie, who are still humbled by the well-wishes they receive.
“And money still came in while we were in the hospital,” Jackie added.
They were both blown away when a friend of theirs sent a check for $5,000, on top of the $34,000 already raised. The Browns have tried to pay it forward through small charitable acts, but mostly through living a good life.
“I am grateful to God. He blessed me,” John said.
People will come up to John and tell him he’s a miracle.
“God’s a miracle,” he’ll tell them. “He made this happen. I think this has given people a better outlook because they’ll look at me and say ‘he’s done that for you, what can he do for me.’ It’s just amazing and I almost can’t comprehend it. I get amazed every day. I’m very grateful.”
Jackie knows well the gift of life, having worked in the OB section of Sampson Regional for 37 years, delivering babies who have grown up and had their own children, which she has also helped deliver. Jackie said the selflessness of the Sampson Regional staff is indescribable.
“We are such a tight-knit family, I think every time I hurt, they hurt,” Jackie said.
Leading up to last year’s fundraiser, Ameen described the Browns’ own selflessness, and alluded to why the event would be so successful.
“Both have been so instrumental in helping others,” the pastor said. “It’s time for people to surround them now that they need it.”
And that’s exactly what the community did.
John and Jackie encouraged everyone to be organ donors. They both always have been. It could be the gift that saves someone’s life.
“He sees life so differently now,” said Jackie of her husband.
“I’ve got so much to look forward to,” said John. “We’re thankful for what everyone has done and what they continue to do. I don’t know how long I have on this earth, but I’m going to live every day of it with gratitude.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.