‘A heart of gold’: Yakima organ donor saves firefighter’s life, brings families together
YAKIMA, Wash. — Kevin Irby was a son, a brother, a father of two young boys and, most of all, a person much loved by those around him.
“He had a heart of gold,” said Shana Irby, one of Kevin’s three older sisters. “He really was a really good kid.”
Kevin was a funny guy who always had a smile on his face and was ready to help other people, despite the fact that he faced challenges many around him weren’t always aware of.
“He just kind of struggled in life,” Shana said. “He was one of those ones who got a lot of bad breaks, probably a little bit on the depressed side of life because of everything that had happened to him.”
Shana said he never let that stop him from being kind to others; whatever he had to give, he gave.
“If you called him and you said, ‘Hey Kev, I need help. My car is acting funny,’ he would totally be right there to help you,” Shana said.
“That’s all he would want, is to help other people.”
On July 31, 2018, Kevin died unexpectedly from respiratory failure at the age of 42 after a family gathering at a local park.
Shana, who lives in California, was in town for her high school reunion and had spent the day at the park with the whole family, including her nephews, then 6-year-old Zander and then-2-year-old Bohdi.
When they got back to the house later that day, Kevin went to go take a shower. When he didn’t come out after a long period of time, they knocked on the door and got no answer.
“We had to break into the bathroom; I don’t know how my dad did that,” Shana said.
Shana started CPR, which she’d just been recertified in a few months prior.
“They say that it helped keep his heart going until the paramedics got there,” Shana said.
The family still doesn’t know what exactly happened, though Kevin did have asthma attacks.
“My little nephew was like, ‘I don’t think my dad’s gonna make it this time,’” Shana said. “And it’s just these things that you remember that absolutely break your heart.”
While Kevin wasn’t a registered organ donor, he’d made his wishes clear to his ex-wife, though his family would have known what he wanted anyway.
“That’s all he would want, is to help other people,” Shana said. “He was able to donate both of his kidneys, his liver, his heart and then he did bones and tissue.”
Life Center Northwest, which facilitated the organ donation, said Kevin was able to save the lives of four people, restored the sight of another person and helped countless others with his tissue donation — including burn victims.
“It really helps with the grief knowing that you were able to help so many people,” Shana said.
“He saved my life.”
Just before Christmas that year, Shana and her family got a letter from a man who received Kevin’s kidneys.
“It was just a really nice short letter that says, ‘My health is so much better now,’” Shana said. “‘I live on a farm. I got to see my grandchild for the first time. I got to walk my daughter down the aisle —things I would not have been able to do without the help of your brother.’”
“He saved my life,” Reece said. “It was nothing the Irbys ever put on me at all, but I wanted to feel worthy; I wanted to be a donor they could be proud of.”
“I had half my heart left.”
Just after the birth of his second child, when Reece was 29 years old, his health started to decline. He was burning the candle from both ends, working hard as a firefighter and raising two children under 2 years old, but couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong.
“It just came to the point where I was walking up stairs one day and I couldn’t make it up,” Reece said. “I had to sit down and I was like, ‘What is going on?’”
He decided it was time to go to the hospital. When he arrived at the emergency room, he had no idea what to expect.
“[The doctors] are like, ‘You are in 90 percent heart failure and you may not live through the night,’” Reece said. “I was like, ‘Oh, jeez, okay, that wasn’t really the news I was expecting at 29 years old.’”
With treatment, Reece was able to get to about 50 percent heart failure and returned to work about six to eight months later.
“I had half my heart left,” Reece said. “I worked for the next 10years with that function going down and up and down and up and good days, bad days.”
Then it got bad again and Reece ended up on the transplant list; after six months of waiting, it got so bad, he had to be hospitalized.
“They said, ‘Yes, you need a transplant now or the LVAD because you’re not capable of sustaining life outside a hospital environment anymore,’” Reece said.
Reece was in the hospital for a little over a week when he got the news: he was getting a new heart.
“You can’t even imagine the mixed emotions you have, to go from literally dying in a bed to knowing you’re going to live but knowing the sacrifice that someone else, that another family just made,” Reece said.
“I could tell that I got a really good heart.”
The next day, he was in a hospital bed being pushed down the hall to get his surgery.
“It’s pretty intense, like it’s a no-joke surgery,” Reece said. “You go in there and you hope you come out the other side — and I did.”
Reece remembers the first thing he felt when he woke up; for the first time in a long time, he felt warm. Then, he felt the heart beating inside his chest.
“I remember the heart was beating so strong that I just felt it in my head, just boom boom boom boom,” Reece said. “I could tell that I got a really good heart.”
Afterward, he got pneumonia and had to be re-intubated, making his recovery take a little bit longer than normal.
“You have months and months and months of trying to recoup,” Reece said. “I was still fairly young and I had this goal of getting back as a fireman, so I pushed myself.”
“There’s nothing that’s going to stop me.”
Reece can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a firefighter — he said he kind of “popped out” wanting to be a fireman, a goal his twin brother also shared.
“We liked watching the fire engines go by; in high school, we took a class on how to be firemen,” Reece said. “ We just thought it was the coolest job in the world.”
But then, in the fall of Reece’s senior year of high school, his brother passed away; he watched as the firefighters came to his house.
“Seeing them work on my brother and seeing the pain in their eyes and the intensity with which they fought to save his life had an impact on me,” Reece said.
While he already wanted to be a firefighter, that day solidified it as his life’s goal: to dedicate himself to serving others and saving lives.
“From that moment on, it changed from kind of ‘Oh, that would be really cool’ to ‘I’m gonna do that and there’s nothing that’s going to stop me,’” Reece said.
“If you believe in miracles, that was one.”
That’s why, when Reece left the hospital, he pushed himself harder and harder to return to work, but months went by and he was still unable to return.
“The Irbys reached out with a letter at about the one-year-mark,” Reece said. “I was going through some really, really hard times in my life. And that letter was…If you believe in miracles, that was one.”
Reece wrote back and in return, received pictures of Kevin, his kids and the rest of the family, getting to learn about the man whose heart now beat inside his chest.
“I am so proud of the man I got as a donor,” Reece said. “I’m proud to carry him around, every day.”
Reece said the family made him feel completely welcome — a task Shana said was easily accomplished.
“He is such a fantastic person that we couldn’t have asked for anything else,” Shana said.
Shana said whenever someone passes, their loved ones want to find meaning in their deaths, especially when it happened quickly or unexpectedly.
“You’re like, ‘Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to my family? Why did this happen to my brother’s children?’” Shana said. “My brother didn’t pass away so Reece could get a heart, so these other people could get kidneys and a liver, but you know what? If he was gonna pass away, which he was, the fact that he could help people just helps us. It helps us to know that my brother, his gift of life could be so powerful.”
“It was a gift truly from my heart to those kids.”
Last December, Reece reached out to Shana to ask if he could send presents to Kevin’s kids — now-8-year-old Zander and 4-year-old Bohdi. He didn’t tell Shana what it was, but she passed the request along to the each of the boys moms’ and told him yes.
“I said, ‘How kind are you, to think about my brother’s kids,” Shana said.
The big reveal happened Christmas Eve: it was a hippopotamus stuffed animal with a heartbeat.
Reece said he wanted to do something special for the kids and had found the heartbeat device online.
“Me and my mom ripped open a stuffed animal and did our own little surgery and stuffed it in there,” Reece said. “It was a gift truly from my heart to those kids.”
Shana said when her nephews held the stuffed animal, they could feel the heartbeat.
“He just wanted the boys to have that so whenever they missed their dad, they could just hug the hippopotamus,” Shana said. “It’s just so kind.”
Reece and Shana had planned to meet this summer, with the whole family together, just before the annual donor celebration at Life Center Northwest, where Reece was scheduled to speak; with COVID-19 restrictions, those plans have been put on hold.
“I look forward to doing that with the Irbys soon,” Reece said. “I haven’t had that opportunity, with the COVID stuff, but I hope to meet with them when we can.”
“I wanted to just run over there and hug him.”
However, Reece did have a chance encounter with the youngest boy, Bohdi, and his mom; they were visiting the mom’s sister, who they found out lives just down the street from Reece, in Gig Harbor.
When Reece found out how close they were, he jumped at the chance to meet them and drove two blocks to the house they were visiting to see Kevin’s son.
“I wanted to just run over there and hug him…but I’m also the weird guy that they don’t know, but also I have a piece of their dad in me,” Reece said. “It was so many layers and emotions. He’s a really cute, cool little kid.”
Despite the difficulties both families have faced and the tragic circumstances that brought them together, they said they have so much to be grateful for.
“I’m so overcome with thankfulness this year.”
In January, Reece was able to go back to work; he made history as the first firefighter in Washington state to receive a heart transplant and return to work full-time and without restrictions. He said he doesn’t like to pat himself on the back for much, but he is proud of that accomplishment.
“I’m really proud of that: I am,” Reece said. “I worked hard for it and it was a dream and a goal. It was actually a goal that helped me recover.”
When asked what he was most thankful for this year, Reece said he had so much now that he didn’t think he would ever have, but couldn’t find the words.
“Not having an answer makes me feel like I’m not thankful but the thing is that I’m so overcome with thankfulness this year, that it’s hard to narrow it down,” Reece said. “I’m excited for my life and to be living and I just want the Irbys to know I love them and I care for them and thank you for everything.”
“I’m grateful I got him as long as I did.”
Shana hasn’t seen her family in over a year and due to the pandemic, will not be going home for Thanksgiving, instead spending it alone in California.
Despite that, Shana still feels thankful, for the family she has left and for the time she had with her brother while he was here.
“I got 42 years with my brother and a lot of people don’t get that many years with their family members, so I’m grateful I got him as long as I did,” Shana said.
“It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to miss your family member.”
Shana said the holidays are a hard time for her and the anticipation leading up to the actual day is usually worse.
“Any holiday without a loved one, you think about them: you can’t help but think about them and miss them,” Shana said.
Knowing how difficult the holidays may be this year for the many families across the country who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19 or are spending the holidays apart to protect them, Shana and Reece each shared their advice on how to get through it.
Shana said the first and most important thing is to grieve how you feel you need to grieve and understand that everyone grieves differently.
“Know that it’s okay to be upset, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to miss your family member,” Shana said. “Here I am, two-plus years later and I’m still weepy and that’s okay.”
Every year, Shana and her family light a candle for her brother and invite him to join them for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.
“Whether you believe that or not, it’s just kind of comforting to see that candle lit and to know that it’s symbolic of him joining,” Shana said.
Shana also suggests families make their loved one’s favorite dish for the holidays, “just so that they know, wherever they are, that you’re thinking about them.”
“Let them know that you love them.”
Knowing what it’s like to be in the hospital and not being able to be with family, Reece said families in that position this year should make sure their sick loved one knows how much they’re cared for.
“They’re there, they’re alive,” Reece said. “Let them know that you love them.”
But the most important thing of all, both Reece and Shana said, is to not focus on what is gone, what is lost or what you don’t have, but to take stock of the things you still have and appreciate them for what they are.
“Everyone needs to find a way to celebrate what they have, the little bits of joy that they can find in their sorrow,” Reece said. “Find the silver linings in all of it; If you look hard enough, it’s going to be there.”