Transplant patients, families find housing

Joy Echols never imagined she would leave her home in rural South Georgia and be living in Atlanta while waiting with her son for his double lung transplant.

Her son, Ross, now 25, had been seriously ill as a baby, and doctors warned that he could see repercussions from that in his early 20s. But that did not lessen the shock when Ross had to go on oxygen full time last Christmas or when doctors told his mother he needed a transplant within a year.

Mom Joy knew she had to be with the youngest of her three children through the wait for a donor, the surgery, and the recovery, and — with help from the Jeffrey Campbell Evans Foundation (JCEF) — she is.

Since late June, Joy Echols and Ross have been living in one of six, fully furnished apartments that the foundation has in Atlanta for transplant patients and family members. “It’s our home-away-from-home while we are pre-transplant and post-transplant,” Joy Echols said. “There’s nothing that we have needed that’s not here.”

About 80 transplant patients and their family members have stayed in one of the foundation’s two-bedroom, two-bath apartments since 2017. The length of their stays is usually a month or two, but have ranged from a couple of weeks to seven months.

Most families qualify to have their rent paid by a donor, usually the Georgia Transplant Foundation. People with the ability to pay are charged less than the average daily hotel rates in Atlanta.

Seattle natives Bob and Mary Evans started the foundation in 2015 as a way to bring meaning to the death of their son, Jeffrey “Jeff” Evans.

Jeff, a 4-star Atlanta chef, became ill with flu-like symptoms in 2003 after volunteering to cook at a large charity event in South Georgia. A few days later, X-rays revealed that his heart was large — roughly the size of a small soccer ball — and that an unknown virus had destroyed 80 percent of his heart’s function.

Jeff was on the waiting list for a transplant for three years and was even prepped for surgery once, but the donor’s heart was not viable. He died Aug. 8, 2006, at age 26.

Mary Evans said she was sitting at her kitchen table one morning several years later and said: “God, you have to tell me how to make sense of losing my Jeff because to his mom, none of this makes sense.”

It was then that she said she came up with the idea of building a transplant house in son Jeff’s memory, although she, husband Bob, and son Brad later decided it was better to start smaller, with apartments.

All of the apartments are within three miles of one of Atlanta’s major transplant hospitals — Emory University Hospital, Piedmont Hospital or Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Each comes fully furnished thanks to donors, such as Mike Hall, owner of Georgia Furniture Mart in Norcross.

When Hall heard about the foundation’s mission, “my heartstrings jerked,” he said. “We’ve been really blessed, and we’ve been seeking opportunities to give back ...”

Hall is furnishing a seventh foundation apartment — except for the kitchen — that opens in mid-August.

Cynthia Elery of Powder Springs stayed in one of the foundation’s apartments while her husband, Lawrence, was having a double lung transplant in April 2018.

The spacious apartments do so much for families and the caregiver by creating a relaxed atmosphere where they can eat, talk, play and relax, she said.

“It gives the family the opportunity to be back together as one unit and give that family love we are accustomed to, and that helps the patient to heal even more,” said Elery, now a foundation board member.

Mary Evans still plans to make that dream of a transplant house happen — and not just here but also in 38 other states where transplants are performed. A local architect has drawn up, at no charge, an elaborate design for 20 two-bedroom, two-bath units and amenities that include a gym, game room, audio-visual room, reading room, living room, and chapel. Fundraising for the project is set to begin early next year.

“My passion in life is the caregiver and the emotional, financial, and other burdens they have. It’s a very hard road to travel — a roller coaster ride that’s just up and down,” Mary Evans said. “I always tell them I will do anything for them to try to make this journey a little easier. I know Jeff is just pleased as punch.”

What inspires the Jeffrey Campbell Evans Foundation?

The family of Jeffrey “Jeff” Campbell Evans created a foundation to help transplant recipients and their families in 2015. Evans, who was 6-foot-4-inch, athletic, and passionate about cooking, died Aug. 8, 2006, at age 26. He developed flu-like symptoms in 2003 after volunteering to cook at a large charity event in South Georgia. A few days later, X-rays revealed that his heart was enlarged — roughly the size of a small soccer ball — and that 80 percent of his heart’s function had been destroyed by an unknown virus. He was on the list for a heart transplant for three years but never received one.

What the foundation does: The foundation has six, soon to be seven, fully furnished, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments in the Atlanta area where the families of transplant patients can live during the transplant experience. The apartments are close to Emory, Children’s Health Care of Atlanta and Piedmont Hospital, the major transplant hospitals in the region.

The foundation apartments are one of five housing options available in Atlanta to transplant patients and their families. The others are Mason Guest House, Ronald McDonald House, Atlanta Hospitality House, and Guest Center at Piedmont.

According to the Georgia Transplant Foundation: There were 1,077 lung, liver, heart, kidney and pancreas transplants performed in 2019 at Piedmont, CHOA, Emory, and Augusta University. The cost for these surgeries varies but can be several hundred thousand dollars, even top $1 million.

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