Mary Evans showed Becky Merrill around the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in a complex that sits on the Brookhaven city line. “The kitchen has everything you need,” Evans said as she opened the cabinets.
“That’s good because my passion is cooking,” Merrill said.
Evans could have been an Airbnb host welcoming a guest, but the truth is more complicated than that: Merrill will be staying in one of seven apartments offered by the Jeffrey Campbell Evans Foundation, a foundation set up to provide affordable lodging for transplant patients and their caregivers.
Merrill’s brother Richard received a double-lung transplant May 26 at Emory Transplant Center. Merrill will be taking care of him in the foundation’s apartment for at least four weeks after he is discharged. Merrill lives in Acworth, but she and her brother need to live close to Emory while he recovers.
“You are my passion, not your brother,” Evans said to Merrill. “We know what it’s like to be a caregiver, and it’s not easy.”
Evans knows all too well. In fact, the foundation was born out of grief after the death of her son, the foundation’s namesake.
Evans’ son Jeffrey Campbell Evans was 23 when he fell ill with an unknown virus that attacked his heart. Within five days of contracting the virus, his heart had ballooned to the size of a soccer ball and lost 80 percent of its function.
“I’ll never forget passing someone in the hospital looking at X-rays,” she said. “I heard, ‘Oh my God! Whose heart is this?’ It was Jeff’s.”
Her son spent three years on the transplant list before he passed away from cardiomyopathy and its various complications.
“There’s always a hole in your heart,” Evans said. “The grieving process never ends.”
Nearly 10 years later, Evans said she was sitting at her kitchen table when she had an epiphany. She remembered what it was like when Jeff had to live no more than 10 miles away from the hospital while on the transplant list.
“The bills at home don’t stop,” Evans said.
She decided to start a foundation to help caregivers with affordable housing. She told her husband Bob and their other son Brad about her idea.
“’Let’s go for it!’ they said,” according to Evans.
They opened the first apartment in 2017, sourcing all the furnishings from flea markets and estate sales. Four years later, there are seven apartments, all in the same complex. The foundation provides the residences at low cost or no cost to those who qualify for financial assistance through the Georgia Transplant Foundation.
Evans said she has even bigger plans. “We want to have a standalone transplant house in Atlanta to help more people.”
Evans is raising money now, with the hope to begin construction in less than two years in Brookhaven’s Executive Park.
There definitely is a need. More than a thousand transplants were performed in Georgia last year, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The foundation has helped 132 patients and their caregivers since launching. More than 70 percent of these families made the trek to Emory for aftercare. About 20 percent commuted just down the street to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The final 10 percent are affiliated with Piedmont Hospital.
For Merrill, the apartment will be perfect for her and the rest of her family to care for her brother.
“This is an answer to prayers,” she said. “That’s what this is.”
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