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Eight years ago, Jessica Stivers had a dream, she said, that included a former classmate, Tylan Smither. “We met when we were four years old and attended the old Cropper Elementary,” she said.
They had similar friends at Shelby County High School but never dated, even lost track of each other – until eight years ago, when she had the dream, mentioned it to her mother and then ran into Smither and his mother at Cracker Barrel.
“It had been ten years since we graduated from high school, yet we were both at Cracker Barrel at the same time and were not supposed to be – he was leaving as I was coming in,” she recalled. “I assumed he was married but sent him an E-mail. He assumed I was married but sent me an E-mail. That was how it started.”
Stivers and Smither dated almost a year before he surprised her with a wedding proposal the day before Valentine’s Day.
“He didn’t think he would be off and get to see me. He was such a planner so had everything ready,” she said.
That meant a transfer from Lexington to Frankfort with the Department of Transportation so he would be closer.
They became real close Nov. 4, 2006, when they married. “Our interests were so much alike: our beliefs in God, being active in church, like turtles since we like being at home, not having to be entertained and being rather quiet,” she said.
They believed their union was meant to be, especially after the arrival of their son, Cooper, in September 2009. “Tylan was an only child and didn’t want that for Cooper,” she said. A special education teacher at Simpsonville Elementary, they made plans for a second child.
It wasn’t to be.
In August 2011, Smither texted her to say he was going to mow relatives’ yards and then join her for dinner with her parents. Her mother stopped by about 4:30 “with a terrible look on her face.”
He had collapsed. Preliminary findings led to a stroke because he could not speak or move one side of his body. The family rushed to a Louisville hospital, where Stivers said she recalls that “I could tell by their faces that the news was not good. The ER doctor said he probably couldn’t save him.”
Smither was just 33 years old.
However, he lives on through his organs, which Stivers donated, “We had talked about death. Knowing we were Christians and that when we took our last breath, we would not need our bodies,” Stivers said.
She didn’t think twice when approached about donating his organs. “The best recovery is that you help fifty people. Tylan helped forty-seven,” she said with a smile.
Jessica Smither is now a spokesperson for the Kentucky Organ Donor Association. She was notified of his recipients. “The cornea was implanted within hours of his death and after a year’s checkup, all was well,” she said.
She wrote each recipient through KODA and heard back from one: Ernest who had an accounting business in Eastern Kentucky. He had genetic kidney disease and was on dialysis. He had been on the transplant list nine days when the call came: a 100 percent match. “He even walked to his bed in ICU, which the doctors said was physically impossible,” she said.
All Ernest said he knew about the donor was that he was a male, and he was 33 – the same age as Ernest.
Smither said Ernest, however, told her after they met that ‘’’When I woke up, I knew the donor was a believer. I could feel it. So I accepted Christ three days later.”’
She invited Ernest to a Celebration of Life she hosted on the 1-year anniversary of her husband’s death. There were Chinese sky lanterns on which guests wrote a “pain” they wanted to release.
“They all flew in the direction of Cropper,” she said. “Ernest told me ‘thank you’ was not enough, but I told him it is enough. He questioned whether he was worthy. I didn’t want to put Tylan on a pedestal, but I continued to pray that my pain could help someone else…and I guess it has.”
Her son doesn’t know the connection between his father and Ernest. “He just tells his friends that his Daddy is in Heaven helping Jesus,” she said with a grin, sharing how Cooper continues to look at the family portraits at home that include Tylan. He even attached a note to a balloon to send on Father’s Day. “It also went straight to Cropper,” she said.
In her new role as a KODA ambassador, Jessica Smither said, reflecting when she signs applications that she thinks, “Oh my gosh, I am thirty-four and a widow.”
But she said she realizes that “Tylan would be proud of me. This is so not who I was but I guess now who I am. Would I want Tylan back? Sure! But I know I am a better person.”
Duanne B. Puckett is public relations coordinator at Shelby County Public Schools. You can join the Kentucky Donor Registry by visiting www.donatelifeky.org.