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Transitioning to next phase of life

At 6:30 tonight, Jonathan Laird will be sitting in the back rowof West Lincoln Attendance Center’s graduating class, cracking upwith his buddies and waiting for his name to be called to walkforward and receive his high school diploma.

Graduation isn’t a moment too soon. The 18-year-old senior isready to move on.

“You gotta grow up sometime,” he said. “You’ve got to changeeverything you’ve done for the last 13, 14 years.”

For all Lincoln County’s graduating seniors heading off tocollege or to work, everything will change. But for Jonathan, nomatter where he goes or how he spends the rest of his life, onething 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 fromrejecting the liver he received by transplant when he was a baby,the transplant that kept him alive and made a special Friday nightin cap and gown possible.

Jonathan was only a baby, 7 months old to the date, when hereceived a life-saving liver transplant on June 13, 1992. Born onNov. 13, 1991, he enjoyed the life of a bouncing baby boy for only10 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,” saidJonathan’s father, James Laird. “He was diagnosed with neonatalhepatitis. That’s short for they don’t know what caused it.”

The infant underwent a pair of surgeries at UMC to check on thedevelopment of the bile ducts in his liver. Doctors and familycouldn’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 withthe Lairds.

In May of 1992, Jonathan’s condition deteriorated out ofcontrol. He was airlifted to the premier center for livertransplants in the country, the University of Nebraska MedicalCenter in Omaha. He was flown out on a private leer jet with hismother, Alma Laird, and a pair of nurses to watch over him.

When Jonathan checked in at UNMC, things were bad. He was sosick doctors wouldn’t put him on the transplant waiting list untilhis body had been built back up.

Even if they’d had a liver waiting to go, his body could nothave withstood the operation, his father said. The building upprocess would take weeks, and doctors sent the senior Laird backhome to Mississippi, telling him everything that could be done wasbeing done.

Death approached. Jonathan, nearing 7 months of age, had shrunkto nine pounds, and doctors told the Lairds their baby wouldn’tmake it past 48 hours without a transplant. He was placed on thenational transplant list at Status One, giving him priority if anorgan became available.

“You start preparing for the worst,” his father said. “We knewin our minds if he wasn’t meant to live, the Lord would take himon.”

The Lord wasn’t ready for Jonathan.

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

Laird set off on a 16-hour drive to Nebraska, stopping only oncefor an hour in southern Missouri for a power nap. He arrived atUNMC 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 wasa success.

As is the case with most transplants, one life has to end beforeanother can begin. Jonathan’s new liver came from a 1-year-old fromKearney, Neb., who died suddenly of a brain aneurism. The Lairdshave attempted to contact the family over the years, but theirrequests have been turned down.

“They’re not ready, and I respect that,” Laird said. “Maybe someday.”

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

James Laird began volunteering with the Mississippi OrganRecovery Agency in 1997, serving on its board of directors. Workingin public education and marketing for the agency, he traveled thestate to make speeches and set up various events, encouragingpeople to become organ donors.

Jonathan traveled with his father up until about two years ago,becoming the state’s poster child for transplants. He workedclosely with Miss Mississippi 2000 Christy May, whose platformcentered on organ and tissue transplants, and presented MORA’sscholarship at the pageant each year.

With a successful career “selling” the idea of organ transplantsas a child, Jonathan is hoping to build on that success as anadult. After graduation, he’ll be headed to Southwest MississippiCommunity College for a degree in advertising and marketing.

Jonathan still carries the scars from his childhood experiencesand still has some medical equipment in his body. It will staythere 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 itto someone,” Jonathan said. “You don’t take anything with you whenyou die, so you might as well give it to someone who can useit.”

According to MORA statistics, there are 107,000 people waitingfor organ transplants nationally, including 1,100 Mississippians.Anyone can become a donor by specifying it on his or her driver’slicense, or by signing up with the Mississippi Donor Registry atwww.donatelifems.org.