When Jim awoke from the 21-hour surgery, there was a loud thumping in his chest he had never felt before. “I was not used to hearing the rub-dub beating of my heart,” he wrote in his book, “When Hope is Your Only Option.” This new heart felt strong – much stronger than the one he was born with. The same one that only two days before was failing and on the verge of stopping forever.
Jim Stavis is the only person ever to have received a heart, kidney and pancreas transplant. Triple-organ transplants are incredibly rare, without which he would have certainly died that day back in 2005. The 63-year-old’s story is an incredible testament of how hope is the force that drives a person to face adversity, be it personal or professional. “Without hope, I would not have made it,” he wrote. To Jim, founder of Paragon Steel, “hope” is not some whimsical wish; hope is an action verb that requires thought, will and a shift in attitude. Hope is what ultimately impacts results.
A Death Sentence at 17
“You may not live to see your 50th birthday” was the somber prognosis from the endocrinologist. Jim was just 17-years-old when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In 1971, the outlook for diabetics was much different than it is today. Jim was told he would most likely suffer from kidney failure, heart disease, blindness, and possible limb amputations.
“I had to decide for myself how I was going to contend with the diagnosis,” Jim said in a recent interview. “I knew I had a shorter lifespan, so I thought I’d better get on with my life before all of these horrific things started happening to me.”
Up until the time Jim was diagnosed with diabetes, he never considered himself much of a risk taker. But with the prospect of a shortened lifespan, he was willing to take chances, throwing caution to the wind. After all, what did he have to lose? Some of those adventures brought him dangerously close to tragedy on more than one occasion – a near drowning in a notoriously dangerous surf in Southern California, engine failure of a plane flown by an inexperienced pilot named Moonshadow, being chased by bulls in Switzerland and a chemical explosion at the company he and a pal founded. The tales of these adventures, which he describes in great detail in his book, are the things a mother’s nightmare are made of.
But being a risk taker also meant that he was willing to take chances in his professional life that many his age would not consider. At 18, Jim and his business partner started a business distributing and manufacturing aftermarket products for the small import cars that were taking over the auto market in the early ‘70s. The company was a huge success with more than 100 employees, but Jim grew tired of the business and was eager for a new challenge, so after 16 years, he walked away from the auto aftermarket industry and right into his next adventure.
Jim was just 34 when he and a business acquaintance founded Paragon Steel in Long Beach, Calif. He describes Paragon as a sales and marketing business that sells steel products. “When Doug Carpenter and I started in the steel business, there was a lot of focus on steel as a commodity, as it was very price-oriented,” he said. “We had a different approach; our focus was in servicing our customer’s needs whatever they might be”.
This shift in mindset was the strategy that gave Paragon a competitive advantage over other steel distributors and fabricators in the area. Early adoption of emerging technology also contributed to the company’s success. “Doug was more tech savvy than I, so he was spending more and more of his time in IT,” said Jim. “The more time he spent making sure our computer system was up and running, the less time he had to sell steel, which really was his role in the company. It was detracting from our ability to do what we were intended to do – sell steel. So we brought in a company to take over the IT and manage that.” So began the now eight-year relationship with Doug Johnson, managing partner at MIS Solutions.
The Wakeup Call
Jim and his childhood best friend, John, along with both their wives and children were enjoying a week-long retreat at Bruin Woods, the family resort in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., open to graduates of UCLA. This particular afternoon they were participating in the obstacle ropes course along with other campers. Jim had always remained athletic and active through the years despite his chronic illness. When his turn came, he strapped on the harness and began his ascent up the telephone pole. At 20 feet atop the pole, Jim was drenched in sweat but paused to take in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. He remembers yelling down at the group below how amazing the view was from his perch. Then the lights went out.
When Jim slowly regained consciousness, John and another gentleman from the group were crouched over him. His wife and children were in tears while John’s wife tried to console them. The rest of the group looked on in horror. Jim had suffered a cardiac arrest with only a harness and some rope preventing him from plummeting to the ground. John and the other man, who happened to be a doctor, performed CPR for more than 20 minutes before bringing Jim back from the brink of death. The miracle atop that mountain at Bruin Woods was the wakeup call Jim needed to make some changes in his life.
His brush with death taught Jim two lessons that day. One, he needed to start taking better care of himself. He was 42 years old – only eight years away from the “expiration date” handed to him in 1971. Two, he could no longer keep his health issues private. He began blogging about his diabetes, the miracle in Bruin Woods and life in general. He included personal stories in Paragon Steel’s newsletter which to his surprise really struck a chord with many of his customers and prospects. People could relate to his story and many reached out to him with accounts of their own struggles. Jim had found his voice and was determined to use it. “There’s a reason I’ve survived through all the madness in my life,” he said. “I want to use my story to inspire others in dealing with their own adversity. If you have a good belief system and attitude, you can overcome just about anything.”
Despite Jim’s best efforts to live a healthier lifestyle, he couldn’t stop the war that diabetes continued to wage on his internal organs. Five years after the incident at Bruin Woods, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure which led to his kidneys shutting down. Dialysis was his only option until suitable donor organs became available. Three or four days a week, three and a half hours a day, Jim was hooked up to the lifesaving machine to do the job his kidneys could no longer do. The very sad truth is that more than 8,000 dialysis patients die each year waiting for a kidney. Jim was certain he was not going to be one of them. He had hope.
Through all of the devastating blows to his health, dialysis treatments, doctor appointments and hospital stays Jim continued to run his business, coach his kids’ sports teams and be a father and a husband. With his business partner’s help, Paragon Steel continued to thrive despite the added stress of Jim’s failing health. Learning to let go of the small things is what allowed Jim to focus on what was really important in his life, fragile as it was. The most important thing was to stay alive. So for a year, he drove himself to dialysis treatments all the while clinging to the hope that the organs would become available.
As Jim was leaving the dialysis treatment facility one day, he felt a bit off. The day wore on and he soon realized the feeling he was experiencing was the same one he had that day at Bruin Woods right before he passed out. Having learned not to ignore his body’s signals, he drove himself to the emergency room immediately. He was barely hanging on and Jim knew he was dying. His 50th birthday was just a few weeks away. His endocrinologist’s prediction was coming true. Was this how it was going to end?
Jim was clinging to what little life he had left. And that’s when the call came in. He was rushed by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles where three teams of transplant specialists were already prepping for the surgeries. Twenty-one hours later, Jim had a new heart and a new kidney. The pancreas would have to wait until a later date so as not to put too much stress on his body.
The Angel of Hope
Brice Fabing was a dark-haired, handsome, athletic senior at Lompoc High School when he lost his life in a tragic car accident. Through their immense grief, his family made the loving decision to donate his organs so others may live. His picture hangs in Jim’s kitchen as a daily reminder of how precious life is. “Most transplant recipients don’t ever meet their donor’s family,” said Jim. But the Fabings were open to meeting the man whose life their son saved. During the first meeting of what has become a special bond between the two families, Dorine Fabing placed her head on Jim’s chest so she could hear her son’s heartbeat. Jim attended what would have been Brice’s high school graduation in 2006 and the two families participate each year in Donate Life California 5K Walk Run. In 2016 Jim rode on the Tournament of Roses Parade float sponsored by Donate Life holding a photograph of Brice. “They’re like my second family and we kind of share this commonality that I would have never predicted. So it’s very unique” he said.
Jim had his employees in Paragon’s steel fabrication shop create a bench in honor of Brice. While presenting the bench to the Fabings, Dorine mentioned to Jim that she had petitioned the city of Lompoc to erect an Angel of Hope statue. The Angel of Hope statue was introduced in the book The Christmas Box written by Richard Paul Evans. In the book, a woman mourns the loss of her child at the base of an angel monument. Though the story is mostly fiction, the angel monument once existed but is speculated to have been destroyed. Evans commissioned a new angel statue in response to reports that grieving parents were seeking out the angel as a place to grieve and heal. The monument was dedicated on December 6, 1994, which corresponds with the date of the child’s death in The Christmas Box. Angel of Hope statues have since been erected around many parts of the country and each year, on December 6, people gather at these statues to pay tribute to children they have lost.
December 6 is Jim Stavis’ birthday.
Less than a year after Jim’s first transplant surgery, he received the gift of a new pancreas. For the first time in 35 years, Jim was free from the shackles of diabetes. No more insulin pumps. No more testing blood sugar levels. No more dietary restrictions.
While diabetes doesn’t carry the death sentence today that it did 50 years ago, Jim encourages people diagnosed with the disease to take it seriously. “It’s easy to live in a state of denial when you have diabetes because you can easily manage the symptoms, making you feel like you’re OK. But what you don’t really realize is that it’s a little bit like a ticking time bomb inside you. Diabetes slowly affects your whole cardiovascular system which causes all the damage.”
Man of Steel
In many ways, Jim’s life has mirrored his company’s journey. There have been many highs and lows. In 2014, his business partner Doug Carpenter died after a long illness. It was a devastating blow to Jim and Paragon Steel. With Doug’s passing, Jim had to lean even more on Doug Johnson and the team at MIS Solutions. “He knows our system inside and out. He really was the important cog in the wheel to make this whole thing work.”
Losing his partner of 26 years was more like losing a brother for Jim. Doug’s death cast uncertainty about the future of Paragon Steel so Jim felt like it was up to him to instill confidence in his employees that everything would work out. “It’s easy to get lost in the negative, looking at all the possible worst-case scenarios,” he wrote. “How you envision the unexpected outcome may impact the outcome itself…Turning your face to the sunlight and looking for the positive can move you from a state of adversity and loss to feeling upbeat and smiling again.” Eventually, Jim did sell off part of the company so the core business would succeed.
The irony of Jim landing in the steel business isn’t lost on him. Not once as a young boy did he ever have a desire to be in this industry. “I just kind of fell into it,” he said. “But it’s an interesting metaphor for my life. Steel is a very resilient metal. I’m proud that we’ve managed to navigate through all the ups and downs in my company and in my life.”
Steel is also one of the most recycled materials in the world. “I’ve got some recycling going on, too,” He added.
Become an Organ Donor
Jim is on this earth today because the Fabing family made the decision to generously donate their deceased son’s organs. Without donors, the transplant process would not exist. Registering to be a donor is as easy as checking a box on your driver’s license application. Your information will be forwarded to Donate Life, the nonprofit organization that promotes organ donation and manages the donor registry.
Jim’s book, “When Hope is Your Only Option,” is available on Amazon and Audible and at Barnes & Nobel.
He also wrote and produced a short film documenting his journey. You can watch the film HERE.
Visit his website at https://www.jimstavis.com/