Transitioning to next phase of life

Source: The Daily Leader

At 6:30 tonight, Jonathan Laird will be sitting in the back row of West Lincoln Attendance Center's graduating class, cracking up with his buddies and waiting for his name to be called to walk forward and receive his high school diploma.

Graduation isn't a moment too soon. The 18-year-old senior is ready to move on.

"You gotta grow up sometime," he said. "You've got to change everything you've done for the last 13, 14 years."

For all Lincoln County's graduating seniors heading off to college or to work, everything will change. But for Jonathan, no matter where he goes or how he spends the rest of his life, one thing will always, always remain the same.

It's called Prograf, and he takes it twice a day, every day. It's an immunosuppressive drug, and it keeps his body from rejecting the liver he received by transplant when he was a baby, the transplant that kept him alive and made a special Friday night in cap and gown possible.

Jonathan was only a baby, 7 months old to the date, when he received a life-saving liver transplant on June 13, 1992. Born on Nov. 13, 1991, he enjoyed the life of a bouncing baby boy for only 10 weeks, and life has revolved around the liver ever since.

"We went to our pediatrician because he was jaundiced, and Dr. Jimmy McGee right away said we need to schedule you in at (University of Mississippi Medical Center) in Jackson," said Jonathan's father, James Laird. "He was diagnosed with neonatal hepatitis. That's short for they don't know what caused it."

The infant underwent a pair of surgeries at UMC to check on the development of the bile ducts in his liver. Doctors and family couldn't figure it out.

Some weeks, Jonathan would be just fine. Others, he'd be ill. Doctors began discussing the possibility of a liver transplant with the Lairds.

In May of 1992, Jonathan's condition deteriorated out of control. He was airlifted to the premier center for liver transplants in the country, the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. He was flown out on a private leer jet with his mother, Alma Laird, and a pair of nurses to watch over him.

When Jonathan checked in at UNMC, things were bad. He was so sick doctors wouldn't put him on the transplant waiting list until his body had been built back up.

Even if they'd had a liver waiting to go, his body could not have withstood the operation, his father said. The building up process would take weeks, and doctors sent the senior Laird back home to Mississippi, telling him everything that could be done was being done.

Death approached. Jonathan, nearing 7 months of age, had shrunk to nine pounds, and doctors told the Lairds their baby wouldn't make it past 48 hours without a transplant. He was placed on the national transplant list at Status One, giving him priority if an organ became available.

"You start preparing for the worst," his father said. "We knew in our minds if he wasn't meant to live, the Lord would take him on."

The Lord wasn't ready for Jonathan.

"It was the Friday night after I got back (to Mississippi), I was talking to my wife and she said, ‘I've got to go, the nurse has come in and said we may have a liver,'" Laird said. "The nurse called me back around 11 or 12 o'clock and said, ‘It looks like a go. If you want to b here, you need to leave now.'"

Laird set off on a 16-hour drive to Nebraska, stopping only once for an hour in southern Missouri for a power nap. He arrived at UNMC at 4 p.m. Saturday, just as his son was coming out of surgery. There would be some complications with his body in the near future - Jonathan was on more than 20 medications - but the transplant was a success.

As is the case with most transplants, one life has to end before another can begin. Jonathan's new liver came from a 1-year-old from Kearney, Neb., who died suddenly of a brain aneurism. The Lairds have attempted to contact the family over the years, but their requests have been turned down.

"They're not ready, and I respect that," Laird said. "Maybe some day."

The Lairds never forgot the blessing they received, and have since worked diligently to help others facing the same specter.

James Laird began volunteering with the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency in 1997, serving on its board of directors. Working in public education and marketing for the agency, he traveled the state to make speeches and set up various events, encouraging people to become organ donors.

Jonathan traveled with his father up until about two years ago, becoming the state's poster child for transplants. He worked closely with Miss Mississippi 2000 Christy May, whose platform centered on organ and tissue transplants, and presented MORA's scholarship at the pageant each year.

With a successful career "selling" the idea of organ transplants as a child, Jonathan is hoping to build on that success as an adult. After graduation, he'll be headed to Southwest Mississippi Community College for a degree in advertising and marketing.

Jonathan still carries the scars from his childhood experiences and still has some medical equipment in his body. It will stay there forever, but his organs won't. He's an organ donor.

"It saved my life, so I can help save someone else's. I owe it to someone," Jonathan said. "You don't take anything with you when you die, so you might as well give it to someone who can use it."

According to MORA statistics, there are 107,000 people waiting for organ transplants nationally, including 1,100 Mississippians. Anyone can become a donor by specifying it on his or her driver's license, or by signing up with the Mississippi Donor Registry at