A smile spread across Charmin Porter Smith’s face as soon as she could hear the sound of Gary Davis’s lungs inflating Saturday afternoon.
She stood still under the weight of the moment and just listened to Gary’s chest with the stethoscope.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale …
These were RunRun’s lungs.
It was a moment she’d waited more than a year to have.
A donation and a transplant
Gary was watching television at midnight when he received a call from a number he didn’t recognize.
She said, “Are you ready for a set of lungs? We’ve got you some …”
The 39-year-old father of two teenaged sons was absolutely ready, he said.
He’d been living with sarcoidosis, a disease in which inflamed cells grow in the lungs and lymph nodes, for a couple of years. It causes fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss and pain and can mean someone who’s struggling with it could experience shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough, wheezing and chest pain.
Gary had been on the transplant list since early 2020 and, as the pandemic hit and his condition worsened, he didn’t think he would be able to have a transplant.
But the chance came just a few weeks after transplants resumed.
He arrived at Vanderbilt Hospital at 3 a.m. on Monday, May 18 and surgery took place around noon. He was in surgery as Covington’s Class of 2020 began the first of its two graduation ceremonies, socially distanced on the football field with some students wearing memorials for 22-year-old Tre’Veon Davis and brothers T.J. Smith and Tyronzen “RunRun” Smith, 21 and 16. The boys had been involved in a car accident and had died two days prior.
Before the transplant Gary couldn’t walk to the bathroom without being out of breath and exhausted.
“Two days before my surgery I had a doctor’s appointment and I had a portable oxygen machine if I went places. It was battery powered and it got to be where it wasn’t enough. They said I had gotten really bad.”
He’s had no signs of rejection, his check-ups have gone well, and he’s enjoying his second chance at life.
On Saturday he drove from three hours from Pleasant View to meet the family who gave him something for which he says he could never repay them.
“It’s bittersweet,” Gary said. “She gave me her son’s lungs and that’s something I’ll cherish forever. If it wasn’t for that, I would have been dead. It’s a strange feeling.”
Charmin and her daughter E’Laysheon sent letters to all of the recipients of T.J. and RunRun’s organs through the MidSouth Transplant Foundation. Gary is the only one who’s responded to date.
He was honored to meet them and eager to thank them.
“We wanted to reach out and make sure you were okay,” Charmin said. “It’s crazy because all of his organs got donated, you’re the only one we’ve heard from.”
‘I cried, I did’
To protect patient privacy donors are not identified for a year after a transplant. Gary was pretty sure he already knew, though.
A family friend who taught the boys in middle school searched Facebook after the transplant was completed and found Gary. She saw someone had mentioned he’d had a lung transplant and she just knew the lungs had to have been donated by one of “her boys.”
She sent him a copy of the letter provided by the transplant foundation detailing where the organs were donated – Gary had to have been the man in Nashville in his 30s who received RunRun’s lungs – as well as the story about the boys that appeared in The Leader last summer.
Gary was taken aback at the news, saddened that his donor was just a boy the same age as one of his own sons.
“I knew, almost positive, it was him,” Gary said. “It hit me real hard. I felt bad for Charmin. I’ve got two sons – 15 and 16 at the time – and I was thinking ‘What would I do? How would I feel if I lost both of my boys, or even one of them?’ I cried, I did, because I had to put myself in her shoes.”
‘He was a hyper little dude!’
Gary sat on the couch opposite Charmin as they talked about life and death and the moments in between.
Behind him was a wall full of photos of the boys and their siblings, as if they were sitting in on the meeting too.
Since our last interview with Charmin and Lay Lay life has changed. The Smiths now have three grandchildren with several others on the way.
Lay Lay has a 10-month-old baby boy and RunRun has a daughter the same age, a daughter Charmin didn’t know about when RunRun died (though he did, and she’s thankful he knew).
Gary listened to the memories the family shared – RunRun was incredibly intelligent, but what teachers called a loud and busy child, and his son is the same way.
“You ain’t hyper?” Toby Smith, the father of both T.J. and RunRun, asked. “He was a hyper little dude!”
During the meeting family members filtered in and out of the house, some wearing shirts in memory of the late 16-year-old. Gary thinks the way the community continues to remember them is special.
In addition to sharing memories, Charmin asked plenty of questions about the procedure, recovery, and his life since the transplant.
“They say when you get a transplant you pick up weird cravings?” Charmin asked.
“I don’t know about cravings, but I used love hot stuff and I can’t eat hot stuff at all now. That’s changed. Two things I’ve noticed is I used to be really hot natured and now I stay cold and my taste in music has changed,” he said with a smile. “Like, for real. I still listen to a little bit of everything, but I listen to more hip hop and pop music, I swear to God, than I have in my whole life.”
His revelation was met with laughs and more conversation. For the Smith family, part of RunRun is back at home again if only for a brief time.
‘Tyronzen leaving was out of my control’
Charmin said the doctors told her and T.J.’s mother, Tikita Winfrey, the boys were brain dead the day after their accident.
Months before, she and her children had a conversation about organ donation. RunRun didn’t want to do it, but she jokingly told him she would anyway.
“I said, ‘Boy, if something happens to you I’m donating you!’”
The three parents struggled with the decision to go through with it, but decided to do the selfless thing.
“Like someone said, don’t be selfish. If they can help somebody else … what if that was one of our family members in that predicament?” Charmin said. “We would want somebody to help us. Once they go into the ground over time they’re gone, they can’t help nobody!”
Before he needed a transplant, Gary said he hadn’t thought much about organ donation but now it’s an everyday thought.
He tells people about RunRun, calling him “the amazing young man that saved my life.”
“Yeah, when you posted on Facebook ‘it’s been nine months since RunRun saved my life …’ that really put a smile on my face,” Charmin said.
Though they have mixed feelings about how the process went, Charmin is happy to know Gary has the chance to continue living for his sons.
Gary offered her the chance to listen to him breathe, listen to the lungs that powered RunRun’s first breath and his last, the lungs that gave Gary a new chance at life.
Now they are Gary’s lungs. And he can inhale and exhale without pain, thanks to RunRun.
His transplant team told him he was trading one set of problems for another, but these problems would be better because he was actually going to be alive.
Gary admitted he feels guilty he’s alive and RunRun isn’t, though.
“There’s nothing I can do, as far as that goes, because she’s given me something I can never repay her for.”
She knows that and she comforts the man now breathing through her late teenaged son’s lungs.
“It’s okay, as long as I can say, ‘Just hold the phone up and breathe!’” Charmin said. “Tyronzen leaving was out of my control, God wanted him more, but I can help you be with your kids until they’re way up in age.”