While family members were praying to God to save their loved one after a tragic motorcycle crash left him brain dead, other individuals elsewhere were praying to God for another day.
Twenty-one-year-old Oklahoma Army Reserve National Guardsman SPC Teddy L. Keys Jr., of Oologah, was a soldier who saved or improved the lives of seven people when doctors could not save him after a crash on April 27, 2015.
Because he became brain dead prior to his death and had maintained great physical health, his bones, tissues and other organs were all eligible for reuse and were harvested.
Meanwhile, Brandi Rutherford, of Inola, was living in Austin, Texas, and was barely clinging to life after a streptococcus virus attacked her heart. In 2014 doctors diagnosed her with dilated cardiomyopathy, which meant her left ventrical was too stretched out to pump. Her ejection fraction (the rate at which blood is being pumped out) was 10, leaving her heart to function at that percentage. The normal rate is from 50 to 70.
Her quality of life went from being extremely active in sports to mostly being sedentary.
“I was admitted into the hospital and fitted with a life-vest wearable defibrillator in case of arrhythmia. I wore that and was feeling good until I got the flu,” Brandi said.
Her health began taking a downward spiral, requiring her mother to come to Austin to take care of her.
She ended up in the hospital there where approximately 40 pounds of fluid was drained from her body and a subcutaneous defibrillator was implanted. Later, doctors delivered news to her that became overwhelming. “’You are going to need a heart transplant.’ That was too much for me,” she said.
After further discussion, Brandi learned her insurance would only cover her surgery in a multi-organ transplant facility like Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where she subsequently transferred to and spent a month and a half in ICU.
She was not getting better. Her organs were starting to shut down and she moved higher up the transplant list. An intra-aortic balloon pump was inserted in an artery to help assist the heart but complications arose causing her to have an emergency stent placed.
“I really thought I was dying,” she said.
The next morning, the doctors got a call that they located a heart match, she said.
On April 29, 2015, Teddy’s heart was now beating strongly and loudly inside of Brandi. It was a welcomed sound after being used to barely hearing her own. Her pale face beamed with rosy cheeks and red lips. Life was being restored to her once-failing body.
The doctors told her, “This heart was so strong going in that they barely had to stimulate it,” she said.
Her new heart is a constant reminder. “When I prayed I did not pray for someone to die so I could get a heart. I prayed for another day. This is bitter sweet. Someone died so I could live. I always think about that,” she said.
She thought about it so much that she wanted to know who the donor was and wanted to reach out to the family.
All she knew is she had received a heart from a 21-year-old male in Tulsa. That could have meant he died there but could have lived elsewhere, making it hard to trace. It was through her dad’s work that she learned of Teddy’s name and death but thought that was a long shot that it could be him.
Late one night she decided to see if Teddy had a Facebook account.
“He did not have one, but his dad did,” she said. “My heart rate when I went to bed was 77. After I began looking at family photos and I saw Teddy...my heart all of a sudden started beating hard out of my chest. It started beating out of control. I think it was him. My fingertips were on fire and burning tears began rolling down my face. My heart rate jumped to 114. I knew this was my donor,” Brandi added.
It is rare that organ donor families ever get the opportunity to meet the families of organ recipients. Even more rare, that an organ donor and a recipient be from the same county. These two were separated by approximately 27 miles.
She wanted to contact the family but was told to wait at least a year to allow them time to grieve. Then one year later, in April, Brandi received a letter from the donor family.
Teddy’s stepmother Lorie Keys wrote a two-page letter telling her about Teddy and they pray constantly for her health. Teddy, an only child, was preceded in death by his mother, SP4 Jean Marie Keys two years earlier. “We believe everything happens for a reason and that God has a plan for each of us. We believe that you, the recipients of Teddy’s organs are the purpose for which he was born. If Teddy had not been a donor, his story would end there on that highway,” Lorie wrote.
Lorie said Thursday, “Teddy was at the top in everything he did. Seven different people were impacted by him. They are all a part of us. Being a donor is an incredible thing to do for someone else.”
Brandi said the hardest part about having Teddy’s heart is knowing his family are missing him.
“I always think about that. My celebration of life each year is their memory of each year that he has been gone. They are hurting but they are genuinely happy for me at the same time. They are a great family. We love each other. I have a second chance at life. I appreciate it more now than ever.”
Her scar is a reminder of the struggle she went through and the reminder of a gift she has the duty to take care of, she said. “I owe it to Teddy and I owe it to his family. I am proud of my scar. I will wear it forever. It tells a great story of the legacy he left behind.”