UMMC volunteer Timothy Lewis, a heart transplant recipient, shows off his Transplant Games of America medals at the Millsaps College track.


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People of the U: Tim Lewis

Published on Monday, November 5, 2018

By: Ruth Cummins

Timothy Lewis has a true heart for volunteering.

Several times a week, you can find the lean, energetic 53-year-old in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit. That’s also where his wife, Teila, works part-time at the customer service desk fronting the CICU family waiting room.

Lewis talks to the patients and their loved ones. His words are some of the best medicine those coping with heart failure might receive that day.

“When I tell them I’m there to talk to them because I’m a 2014 heart transplant recipient, everyone in the room lights up. They ask me questions: ‘How did you feel before the transplant?’ ‘How do you feel now? Are you limited in what you can do?’

“I share that I don’t have a whole lot of limitations, but that I put limitations on myself. I show them my box of medications. I tell them that I take my medicine like I eat my food. It’s a serious visit.”

Lewis feels their fears, their lost spirit, and their hope. He walks with them on their journey as he shares his own, covering ground from his initial illness to the elation of winning gold medals in the nation’s Transplant Games.

Timothy Lewis shows his competitive spirit and the medals he won at the Transplant Games of America. He's pictured at the Millsaps College track.

He discovered in January 2012, courtesy of a free screening, that his heart was operating at 25 percent of capacity. He slowly lost his energy and slid into end-stage congestive heart failure.

He was placed on a transplant list in October 2013. Then, things moved quickly for the former Hinds County employee. In early December 2013, he visited his cardiologist at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. The doctor admitted him immediately. Lewis needed a transplant to survive his stay there.

Lewis received the heart of an 18-year-old on Jan. 4, 2014, but not without first experiencing another life-altering event. His daughter Lolaycia moved up her wedding by three months and organized, in a week’s time, a ceremony at the hospital’s chapel. Lewis walked her down the aisle hooked to a heart assistance device that kept him going while he waited for a transplant.

Lewis visits a patient in the CICU.

When Lewis came home to Jackson, “the first stop I made was at UMMC,” he said. “I knew that with the gift I received, I had to give it back. I knew I had to come here.”

“It’s called divine intervention,” said Marsha Burton, grateful patient liaison in the Office of Development who at the time directed volunteer services in the Adult Hospital. “I already had a couple of bone marrow recipients as volunteers, and I wanted a heart transplant recipient. I prayed one day for the Lord to send me one. Tim came knocking on my door that afternoon.

“He is absolutely one of the kindest souls I ever met, and he gives back so freely,” Burton said. “You can sympathize with anyone, but not everyone can empathize. Tim offers empathy.”

Many of the patients he talks to are so sick they’re waiting for a transplant in the ICU, or find themselves in and out of the hospital because they’re so ill. Some are freshly transplanted.

“He’s such a common sight here,” said CICU nurse manager Don Horn. “He’s always cheerful and uplifting. He’s definitely a plus for morale. He has an effect on the whole staff.”

“I want them to know my journey. I don’t share any gruesome details. I tell them the story of the marriage of my daughter,” Lewis said. “I just want to be that presence to tell them to keep fighting and don’t give up.”

Volunteering inspires him.

“I began to realize that in order for me to be a beacon of light for the patients, I had to make sure I did everything necessary to stay healthy and strong,” Lewis said.

Lewis is all smiles as he wears his Transplant Games of America medals.

Lewis has laced up for dozens of 5K walks, proving to himself that he’s not fragile, and that there’s life after organ transplant. “I’m representing those who have received a transplant, and I’m representing the families who made the decision to give their loved one’s organs to strangers.”

What’s more, he has a double handful of gold, silver and bronze medals that he won in the 2016 and 2018 Transplant Games of America, competing on a national stage with thousands of other transplant recipients in his age category.

This year alone, he racked up, winning silver in the long jump (13.7 feet), gold in the high jump (3.6 feet), silver in discus (90 feet, 7 inches), silver in the softball throw (212 feet), bronze in the shot put (38 feet) and a gold in team basketball. “For 2020, I’m going to do some swimming events,” he said.

Mo Crozier, UMMC’s other volunteer who’s had a heart transplant, came away this year with a bronze medal in corn hole. She found out about the games from Lewis.

“It was the first time I’d ever done corn hole,” said Crozier, who received her new heart at UMMC in 2015. “You just got out there and competed, and everyone cheered you on.”

Mo Crozier, UMMC volunteer and heart transplant recipient, shows off the bronze medal she won in the corn hole competition at the Transplant Games. She is pictured at the Millsaps College track.

Immediately after his transplant, Lewis said, he felt a calling – to cook.

“I started watching the Create channel, and all of these experts cooking cakes and pies. My sister-in-law likes to bake strawberry pie, and I asked her to send me her recipe. I took it and the Shoney’s recipe, and I blended them and made my own pie.

“Then, I started having this craving to bake cakes. My first cake was a Southern pecan cake. The second was a homemade butternut cream cheese cake.”

What he only found out later from the family of his donor: “Brendon’s mom told us that he loved to bake. She said he was going to take up culinary classes in college.”

He took a picture of one of his cakes and sent it to her. “I said, ‘Look what Brendon baked!’” Lewis remembered.

“She told me that it looked beautiful.”