ST. ALBANS – Aside from an employer, Shirley Raymond, the longtime – and now retired – administrative assistant at Bellows Free Academy, and Jim Naylor, a special educator at St. Albans City School, might not seem to share much.
Naylor loves the Grateful Dead, for example. Raymond, meanwhile, has never heard a single song by the Dead.
But what they do share runs deeper than any kind of musical taste or place of employment – literally.
As of this April, they share a liver – Naylor’s liver, specifically.
Raymond was diagnosed with liver disease in 2014, discovered when Raymond was seeing doctors to remove her gallbladder, a small, pouch-like organ that sits below the liver and, according to doctors, is entirely nonessential.
Since then, Raymond gradually became sicker, showing signs of jaundice, bloating, dizziness and fatigue. She said she experienced vertigo for the first time, and her liver disease repeatedly took her hours away to a hospital in New Hampshire for treatment.
She said it was impossible for her to hold down food, and when her doctor called her “malnourished,” she was confused, wondering how someone who had swelled so much could be starving.
“I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy!” the now bright and, by all accounts, healthy Raymond exclaimed as she recalled her story with the Messenger. “I so gradually got sicker that I didn’t realize how sick I was.”
She said it also affected her mentally.
Raymond remembered one time where she forgot how to tie her slipper.
She recalled another time when she woke up in the middle of the night for a bathroom run. Rather than physically walk toward the restroom, however, she scuffled to the other side of the bed and flicked on the light in her room instead.
That night, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, she said.
She also remembered her medication that, according to Raymond, “tastes like hell.”
Despite her struggles with liver disease, Raymond remained at BFA until finally retiring after 30 years at the end of the 2018 school year.
During that time, Naylor and Raymond said they’d interact professionally and that all of their interactions were friendly. Before transferring to SACS, Naylor worked at both BFA and the Northwest Technical Center, meaning he had ample chances to interact with Raymond in her official role.
They wouldn’t become close, though, until Naylor answered a social media call from Raymond asking for donors, shared by one of their mutual friends who also worked out of the St. Albans high school.
“I had to work with Shirley for 21 years,” Naylor recalled. “We always joked around and had a good relationship, but when I heard she was in need and I was the same blood type, I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Raymond remembered calling for a live donor, something she believed could help secure her a liver before she turned 70, the age she was told would mark her as “too old” and possibly disqualify her from the transplant list.
If someone volunteered to donate to her, she wouldn’t have to wait her turn on a lengthy donor list, Raymond said.
Naylor was one of three people – including another coworker and a former student – to respond to Raymond’s call and ultimately was the one whose liver would be bisected for a transplant for Raymond.
“I remember having a conversation at dinner with my family,” Naylor said. “I said, ‘look, I’m thinking about doing this,’ and they said ‘what does that mean?’”
Naylor recalled meeting with doctors with the Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., and remembered a thorough interview process to make sure Naylor was committing to the surgery on his own accord.
“They were very, very professional, making sure this was something I wanted to do and that I wasn’t coerced into it,” Naylor said.
The surgery occurred in mid-April at Lahey, on a Monday.
Naylor’s liver was bisected between its two lobes, with the larger lobe – accounting for about two-thirds of the liver – removed for Raymond.
Once Naylor’s surgery was complete, they started working on transplanting it into Raymond. Because of how long the surgeries lasted, Raymond was “packed” – a surgical process used to stop blood loss from liver damage – and placed in a coma.
Surgery resumed that Wednesday and was a success. Raymond finally came to that Friday.
Raymond stayed a little later than expected at the hospital, but returned home to her husband, BFA employee Terry Richards, with a smile. “I told my husband I was his birthday present,” she said with a grin.
Now Raymond and Naylor appear close, greeting one another with a warm hug when they met with the Messenger earlier this week.
According to Naylor, doctors say his liver is functioning at around 80 percent of where it was before the transplant, a dramatic improvement considering the surgery left him with only a third of his original liver.
While there was some fatigue at first and activities, like a hike up Sterling Pond, could be unexpectedly challenging, Naylor said he’s at the point now where he can start participating in the same activities he loved before, like golfing and kayaking.
Naylor said he was grateful for his family and especially his wife, BFA special educator Kasia Bilodeau, for being as supportive as they’ve been, a sentiment Raymond shared.
“She supported me every step of the way,” Naylor said.
“She supported my family as well,” Raymond said.
Raymond, meanwhile, says she was told her liver was basically “perfect,” and that, save for some minor complications with her white blood cell count, she was healthy.
They’re still attending regular check-ups, but both say they appear to be recovering faster than initially expected.
They’re also trying to figure out whether or not they’ve inherited one another’s tastes through their shared liver.
“Shirley texted me a couple time asking, ‘Jim, do you like chocolate? Because I’m really struggling now with liking chocolate.’” Naylor said, trying to mimic Raymond’s voice. “Shirley, do you now have a fondness for listening to the Grateful Dead?”
“I’ve never heard a single song by the Grateful Dead!” Raymond exclaimed.
“So she hasn’t quite picked that up yet, I don’t think,” Naylor, a self-anointed “Dead Head” said.
Both wanted to thank the medical teams at different hospitals that took care of them during the lead up to the surgery and the staffs that cared for them through the surgeries.
They also said they hoped their story could inspire others to come forward and volunteer as donors.
“Anybody can be an organ donor,” Naylor said. “You can really make a difference.”
“Even now I wonder ‘why me?’” Raymond said. “I still have a hard time accepting what Jim gave me… It literally saves lives.
“Jim literally saved my life.”