The Rev. Melvin Ellis of Memphis will climb into his familiar position at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday and preach. A year ago, his heart wouldn't have allowed it.
Today, Ellis, 49, can preach regularly at the Batesville, Miss., church, work out three days a week and eat healthily because in his chest beats the heart of a Chattanooga man killed by a drunk driver.
"Kevin's heart in my body, thanks to the grace of God, has been compatible since day one," he said.
Kevin Yates' Chrysler Voyager minivan was hit head-on in the early hours of July 31, 2011, according to court records. The Voyager collided with a Jeep Wrangler driven by Latisha Stephens, who was going the wrong way on Highway 153.
The 25-year-old Yates died the following day.
Stephens, whose blood alcohol level was two and a half times the legal limit, according to police, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide by intoxication and reckless endangerment in Hamilton County Criminal Court and is serving an eight-year prison sentence.
On Wednesday, Ellis, Yates' family and some of Stephens' family and friends gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings on Highway 153 to mark International 1N3 Day with a balloon release.
The organization 1N3, was begun by Yates' mother, Tiki Finlayson, and other family members. It refers to one in three, the number of people impacted by a drunk driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Similar events, she said, were held in 107 cities in 31 states and eight locations in other countries. The events were arranged through Facebook and other social networking sites, she said.
One big family
Ellis said Yates is part of his family now and vice versa.
"From day one," he said, "I said if I made it through [the transplant], I wanted to meet the family of [the recipient]. We have met, bonded and have made a great start on the new family we have."
Finlayson said when she and other family members first met Ellis, she had a stethoscope ready. And, she said, Ellis was kind enough to let anyone who desired listen to her son's heart beating in his body.
"It was very exciting, on the one hand," she said, "but it was a bittersweet kind of thing. For this man to be standing there, my son had to leave."
However, Finlayson said the Memphis pastor and her happy-go-lucky son had much in common.
They both liked the comic superhero Batman, they were both tall and they both liked hats.
"When I found out his heart went to a minister, I laughed," Finlayson said. "Kevin was the most compassionate, caring person. Anybody who had a problem, they would go to Kevin. If you needed a shirt, he would go without. For his heart to go to a minister with those same characteristics was awesome to me."
Ellis said he had suffered from cardiomyopathy, a deterioration of the muscles on the left side of the heart, since around 2005. Initially treated by medication, the disease continued to worsen. Next, Ellis had a mechanical device installed to help regulate his heartbeat, but that didn't help, either. After an early 2011 stress test at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, he was told a transplant likely was his only option.
The eventual transplant went so well, he said, he was supposed to be in the cardiac intensive care unit for seven to 12 days but left in three. He was expected to be in the hospital 18 days but left in seven.
Prior to entering the hospital, Ellis said, he could walk only 120 feet before getting winded. Two days after his transplant, he walked 550 feet.
A year later, "everything is going well," he said.
Finlayson said Yates had talked for several years before his death about being an organ donor. An acquaintance of his, she said, had died from a rare genetic heart disease and was a donor.
"He thought it was the coolest thing," she said. "We just knew that was what he wanted to do."
In addition to his heart, Ellis's liver went to a 72-year-old Tennessee man, one kidney and his pancreas went to a 49-year-old Virginia woman and the other kidney went to a 48-year-old Tennessee man. His intestines, veins, skin and bone also were donated.
"Everything but his eyes," Finlayson said. "I didn't think I could look at somebody else with his eyes."
She said she has not met any other recipients but hopes to one day. In fact, she said, she wants to pursue the idea of an annual reunion of recipients with the donor's family.
Finlayson said she and others will go "wherever we're invited" in support of the mission of 1N3.
The organization already has a tie-in to the city's twice-a-month driver's education program. There, she said, she presents an introductory video, talks about underage drinking and driving, discusses texting and distracted driving, mentions organ donation, exhorts students to take a safe-driving pledge, and, in, partnership with Direct Insurance, shows students her son's car.
Upcoming events will take Finlayson to places as diverse as the Marion County Fair and a benefit softball tournament in Florida.
For Wednesday's 1N3 Day, at a California event, she said, the Los Angeles Police Department was to have brought its Don't Drink and Drive truck. Some events were to have been at churches. One in Florida was to be associated with a pool party.
"They all had their own little flavor, which is cool," she said.
Finlayson is hardly alone in her drive.
Ellis, the heart transplant recipient, is a fan. He hasn't even taken off the plastic 1N3 bracelet Yates' family gave him.
"Before the accident," he said, "I preached [against drunk driving] all the time. It can only harm the victim and the families."
Even the family and friends of Stephens, 33, who attends a daily intensive therapy program while in prison, are supportive.
"I hope it will make a huge difference," said Scott Stephens, 39, her fiancé. "It's been a terrible ordeal for both sides, [but] getting the word out, letting people know it's real" are important. You could die or kill somebody. It's not a joke."
He said Yates' family has been helpful.
"They've been great, awesome, truly an inspiration to all of us," Stephens said. "They've forgiven Latisha. They've never been down on us, never looked down on us."
Finlayson said her goal simply is to change the statistic of 1N3. To do so, she said, the organization emphasizes not only awareness of drunk and distracted driving but also addiction recovery and grief recovery.
"Our focus is more toward changing the lives of people -- helping the people impacted as well as the people who cause the problem," she said.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...
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