By Heather Darenberg
SNELLVILLE - In 1994, Beverly Williamson suffered a massive heart attack while she was on the operating table receiving an emergency quadruple bypass.
After the surgery, Williamson was told she had congestive heart failure and would have to end her active lifestyle. But Williamson found a cardiologist who told her she would be a perfect candidate for a heart transplant, and she was placed on the transplant list in September 1995.
In February 1996, Williamson received the call in the wee hours of the morning that would change her life. LifeLink of Georgia had "the perfect little heart" waiting, she said.
Although Williamson was grateful to be getting a second chance at life, she said she wanted to know who her new heart had belonged to.
When she found out it came from 16-year-old Clayton Sechrist, Williamson said, as a mother, she couldn't help but think of his family.
Clayton, a student at South Gwinnett High School, died Feb. 20, 1996.
Although he had taken driver's education classes, Clayton made a new driver's error, overcorrecting his Honda Accord on Lenora Church Road, said his mother, Ann Sechrist. The Accord was
T-boned by a Lincoln Continental, and Clayton suffered a severe head injury in the crash.
At the hospital, a neurosurgeon told Sechrist it didn't look good for her son. So she asked who they needed to call about organ and tissue donations. She knew it's what her son would have wanted.
When Sechrist took her son to get his driver's license, he turned to her when he was asked if he wanted to indicate that he would like to be an organ donor.
"He said, 'I want to do this, don't I?'" Sechrist said. "I said, 'Clayton, it's your decision. Not mine.'"
Sechrist said her son told her it's what he wanted, that it was the right thing to do.
So after Clayton's tragic death, Williamson received his heart.
Another person received his liver, and someone else received his kidney. His tissues and bones were also harvested, which helped 40 other people, Sechrist said.
"I can no longer do anything for Clayton - hug him, see him graduate or get married. I can continue to work in his memory for organ donation, and that's what keeps me going. There is energy to volunteering in his memory," Sechrist said.
For 11 years, Sechrist, Gwinnett Technical College's director of economic development, has continued to work as an advocate for organ donation. She has worked with LifeLink, the Georgia Transplant Foundation and the National Kidney Foundation.
A lot of people have misconceptions about organ donation, Sechrist said. If everyone who is eligible donated, the current shortage would not exist, she said. Each year, more than 2,000 people will die waiting for organs.
Sechrist said most people believe in organ donation, but unless they talk about their plans with their families, they may not become donors. A driver's license can be an indicator of a person's wishes, but it's important for people to talk to their family members about their wishes in regard to subjects such as organ donation and cremation, she said.
"You make a plan for life," Sechrist said. "You need to plan for death, too."
Williamson, the heart recipient, said her experience has turned her into an advocate for organ donation, too. She has traveled with Sechrist to speak to groups, and the two have become friends.
Receiving Clayton's heart "means everything," Williamson said.
"You can't say enough how grateful you are," she said.
After her heart transplant, Williamson, 72, was able to return to her work as a ballet instructor.
"I was able to go back into the ballet classroom and work with children and young people," she said. "I continue to work through the heart of a child, and I never forget that."
Williamson had a heart attack in August, and she had to have a stint placed in an artery. She lives in Gainesville with her son, and she hopes to be able to continue teaching ballet in January.
"To me, every day is Thanksgiving," she said. "When people tell me to have a good day, I say, 'I already have. I woke up today.'
"The most important thing to know (about organ donation) is how meaningful the gift would be to people waiting for a transplant," she added. "If you realize how much good it does, it helps in the healing process. ... It doesn't make it better, but it makes a difference when you know someone has benefited from the decision you made."
Sechrist agreed. Clayton's death was the worst thing her family has ever endured, but she said knowing he helped save lives is "the light at the end of the tunnel of our grief.
"That's the part that makes me feel good," she said. "Even though Clayton died, the good that came out of his body has helped our grief."