Two Families — One Heart
One Man’s Selfless Act: A Gift of Life That’s Keeping the Beat
Andie Kay Joyner (left) walked her heart donor's daughter across her high school football field for Senior Night.
Photo by Beverly Burchett
Steven Dominy saved Andie Kay Joyner’s life.
James Steven Dominy was born September 29, 1975, the only son of Sharon and James L. Dominy.
“We were married six years before we had Steven,” Sharon says. “We wondered if we were ever going to have children then he came here full of excitement and holding his head up. He was such a delight.”
Sister Stacy came along in December 1976, and the family settled in to small-town life in Kirbyville, Texas.
“It was like having twins,” Sharon remembers. “They were inseparable. They aggravated each other and she’d squeal and he’d tattle. Normal brother and sister stuff. They looked out for each other too.”
Nineteen months to the day after Steven’s birth, in another small town 200 miles north, Andrea Kay Joyner was born in Edgewood, Texas, April 29, 1977. She claims four parents, her mother Glenda and stepfather Kelles Miller, and dad Roger and stepmom Janet Joyner. Her brother Chad helped welcome her to the world and sister Jessica came along a few years later.
Steven and Andie Kay had similar childhoods — small town Texas life where everybody knows everybody. They were both surrounded with lots of family and went through school with kids that became life-long friends. Both families spent vacations at the beach.
Andie Kay loved Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, and George Jones — she wanted to be a singer and by the age of 10 she was performing regularly on stages across Northeast Texas. In between weekend music gigs, she enjoyed school and her senior year she was voted Edgewood High School’s Football Sweetheart and took her walk across the field one Friday night with her dad.
At Kirbyville High School, Steven played football, baseball, and basketball. He liked to go fishing and hunting and spend time with his friends.
“We thought he might be a lawyer someday,” Sharon says, “cause he could put his plan out and no matter how we disagreed with him he’d convince us — he was quite the persuader.”
Steven didn’t want to be a lawyer — instead he went to work with a coveted position at BNSF Railway like his father.
He met Dolly Acree right out of high school. They dated several years and then got married and brought three children into the world: Tyson Cruz in 1999, Reagan Preslee in 2001, and Ramsey Alexandra in 2005.
He was a devoted father to his children from the start.
“He was a good dad,” Dolly says. “He loved holding them and didn’t want to put them down when they were babies. He changed as many diapers as I did and gave them baths. He did everything.”
As the kids got a little older he was very involved with their soccer, little league, and cheer games and loved having big birthday parties and going all out for holidays. He was very emotional, Dolly says, noting he teared up before the curtain even opened one time at one of the kids’ school Christmas programs.
“Things got to him,” she said. “He’d get teary eyed.”
Andie Kay took a less traditional path after high school. Instead of marrying and starting a family as many of her friends did, she focused on her music, often with her best friend Heather Starcher Stalling. They had beautiful harmonies and over the years started writing songs together as they played with talented bands like Rusty Weir, Jim Lauderdale, Tommy Alverson, Eleven Hundred Springs, Mark David Manders, and Max Stalling to name a few.
Living her dream brought her much joy but she began having nagging health issues she couldn’t ignore in 1998 and sought medical attention. She was misdiagnosed for five years. By the end of a particularly hard 2003 she finally got the right diagnosis — hemochromatosis.
Hemochromatosis is a blood disorder that causes a build up of too much iron in the body which can lead to serious health issues including death. She was told she’d need to have phlebotomies (blood drawn) to remove iron from her system about every two weeks and then eventually she could slow that down to a few times a year to keep healthy.
Because of her condition she could not have children — she has a special relationship with her niece Faith, born in 2002.
By the time Andie Kay was in her late twenties she and Heather formed their own band, blacktopGYPSY. They had their first gig February 9, 2006, at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, and also released their first album that year.
While Andie Kay battled minor setbacks with her iron disorder, she was happy as her band took off and she spent the next 10 years performing in and around Texas.
During these years in Kirbyville, Steven was enjoying being a dad more than anything and working for the railroad. He spent time with his buddies — the “Five” they called themselves — who often went fishing and hunting together and went to nearby lakes.
Things weren’t perfect for either Steven or Andie Kay during this decade but they each had a deep love of family and reasons to be grateful every single day.
Then in March 2016, Andie Kay was on her way home from a multi-city tour through Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; and Shreveport when she collapsed, completely exhausted and with pain in her chest and stomach.
She was in and out of the hospital for several months and in June got the news that she had irreversible heart damage caused by hemochromatosis. Doctors told her she had less than a year to live without a heart transplant.
“I can’t believe my heart is damaged this much and I never had any warning,” she said when she heard the news.
By early August, she was in critical condition at UT Southwestern Hospital and on a donor’s list for a heart and possibly a liver transplant as well.
While Andie Kay was having the worst year of her life, Steven spent the summer of 2016 with good quality time with his mother Sharon, sister Stacy and her kids, and Dolly and their children.
“We went to the beach,” Sharon said, noting all five grandchildren were there, then all about teenagers. “We had a wonderful time.”
Dolly said she has good memories of those months too.
“We had a good summer,” she recalls. “We went to the lake a lot. He liked to go where the water was. He was a really good grill cook — better than restaurants — so he cooked for us a lot.”
One of Dolly’s best memories of that summer was one night when they were home alone together.
“The kids were at church camp,” she says, “so we decided to move the table in the living room and dance. We played a game of who could find the better song on our phones.”
Steven won, she said.
“He picked ‘Slow Dancing, Swayin’ To the Music,’” and they did just that. “For the rest of the summer he would play that song and we’d dance. Silly stuff. It’s hard to hear it now,” she says.
Friday, September 2, 2016, was a typical night for the family at the local high school football game.
“We went to the game, then stayed up late talking about Tyson’s senior year and hanging out with the kids,” Dolly recalls.
The next morning, Saturday, September 3, 2016, Steven headed out for the day to go fishing with his friends. About 9 p.m. that evening, he was in a one-car accident on a country road near Call Junction in Jasper County. He was taken to Christus St. Elizabeth Hospital in Beaumont, Texas, with a head injury.
He never regained consciousness, his mother said, but they had hope for several hours that he might make it. In the end, damage to the brain was too severe and they let him go Sunday, September 4.
Sister Stacy was a nurse and had even worked at the Beaumont hospital at one time. She recognized a man hanging around since they’d been there with Steven — he was from Southwest Transplant Alliance. She didn’t know at first that he’d be talking with them but once Steven passed he let the family know that Steven had signed up to be an organ donor.
“Even though I’d been through the process with patients’ families in the past, this was hard to get my brain around what was about to happen,” Stacy remembers. But she wasn’t surprised Steven had done this.
“That’s just Steven’s personality,” she says, “to be a doer and a helper. It was not surprising whatsoever.”
Steven’s funeral took place September 11 and the family still takes comfort in all the nice things said that day.
“His personality has always been exciting and he never meets a stranger,” Sharon says, “but I liked hearing so many talk about how his smile made everybody happy. He was full of life. He didn’t like drama. He wanted everybody to get along and be happy. He had a big influence on people.”
Stacy agrees, “His precious smile and beaming personality were like none other. His love for his kids was indescribable and unmatched. He did anything and everything for them. He was always trying to be better for them.”
The family said in his obituary “his last gift was the ‘gift of life’ through the selfless act of organ donation. With this final act of generosity he enables others to live.”
On what would have been Steven’s 41st birthday, September 29, Stacy received a letter from Southwest Transplant Alliance where she learned that four people were saved by Steven’s organs. A male in his 40s received his right kidney while a female in her 20s received his left kidney. His lungs were transplanted into a male in his 50s, and a 39-year-old woman received his liver and heart.
They would learn in time that the woman who had his heart was Andie Kay Joyner.
On August 25, 2016, Andie Kay took a turn for the worse and doctors put a catheter in her neck and moved her to the Intensive Care Unit. They also notified Southwest Transplant Alliance of her condition and she was elevated to “1A” status, taking her to the top of the list for a heart and liver. On Saturday, September 3, her organs started shutting down and the surgeons said she was within hours of death. Sunday, September 4, they hooked her up to an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine that took over pumping her blood to give her severely damaged organs a rest and the family held on to hope that a donor would be found in time.
The next day they were advised a match was found for both organs.
Around noon Tuesday, September 6, Andie Kay underwent an 18-hour surgery to replace her damaged organs, becoming UT Southwestern’s first heart and liver transplant, joining the ranks of only four other Texas medical centers to perform the complicated surgery.
Her body seemed to accept the new organs right away and she began her long road to recovery. She started thinking about her donor “hero” almost immediately.
“Tubes and lines coming out of my body and I’m lying there curious about who this is inside of me that’s keeping me alive,” she said.
The next couple of months, Andie Kay has routine doctor visits, heart biopsies, takes medication, goes to physical and occupational therapy, and has round-the-clock assistance from family and friends.
On November 6 friends held a benefit concert and auction for her at Moore’s Store in Ben Wheeler, a stage she’d played often with her band blacktopGYPSY. This was the second “Make AK OK — Keeping the Beat” fundraiser held for her, the first at Love and War in Plano August 24. At both fundraisers her enormous music family and many others showed up to raise much-needed funds to help with mounting medical bills. Guests in Ben Wheeler were moved to tears when Andie Kay herself appeared in public for the first time that night just two short months since her surgery, singing “I Saw the Light” with her fellow musicians.
“It was the first time in a long time that I got to hear live music and see so many friends and family,” Andie Kay wrote in her journal. “That’s what keeps me going. It was very healing.”
Andie Kay began to journal about her donor as soon as she was able to hold a pen. About three months after the surgery she wrote, “I still think about my organ donor every day. I think about their loved ones every day. I think about how hard it must be for them at this time, especially. This is the first holiday season they will spend without them. Please send them your prayers and please be a donor. My donor gave me the greatest gift I have ever received. I’ll be allowed to reach out to the family in eight and a half months. I hope they want to meet me, because I can’t wait to give them the biggest hug.”
Andie Kay says the last two years have been challenging.
“The first year was all about healing, getting my body and voice back in shape and resting, being quarantined a little bit,” she says. “Cardiac rehab was an important piece in getting my strength back. That was my incentive for me to wake up every morning — eat healthy and go to the gym so I could feel better. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what happened. It’s still hard to process.”
By year two she’s starting to feel more like herself.
“The second year I’m feeling stronger and ready to help others, contacting my donor family, singing, living a better life,” she says. “I feel different, very protective of this life. I don’t get all worked up about little things. I get to perform about twice a month. It’s not like it was before, but my health is top priority and singing and playing is a great healer.”
Life for the Dominy family has been understandably difficult these last two years without their father, son, brother, and friend Steven. The Kirbyville community has wrapped their arms around them and school activities and vacations help them keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sharon’s taken on a part-time job with a florist, Stacy’s working on her master’s degree and keeping up with her kids and Dolly and Steven’s children are wrapped up in pageants, sports, pep rallies, band, and typical lives of teenagers.
Through the Southwest Transplant Alliance the Dominy family learned about a year ago that Andie Kay received Steven’s heart and liver and Andie Kay’s family learned about Steven. Andie Kay was very protective of the Dominy family, not wanting to enter into their lives until they were ready. So she waited, growing ever more grateful, and wishing nothing more than to meet the family of her “hero.”
She and Stacy first connected through letters through the transplant alliance. Stacy gave her contact information to Steven’s son Tyson, now 19, and when 17-year-old Reagan found out about Andie Kay she didn’t waste any time. She called her up and they talked for about three hours that first time.
Dolly, Reagan, and Ramsey, now 13, set a date to meet the woman who has their dad’s heart at a Mexican restaurant in Nacogdoches at the end of October.
Andie Kay was ready to meet them.
“I’ve been ready for a long time. It’s an odd connection I feel with them. I need it — I need to know who saved my life. Who was this person? I felt an instant love.”
On the drive over, Andie Kay is anxious. “What am I going to say to them,” she says. “There’s no playbook for this. I found out he had kids and was young when he died. And here I am walking and talking and having fun getting back to singing. So I’m a little intimidated here. I’m doing great and they have to go the rest of their life without a father.”
Andie Kay’s family and best friends are making this journey with her — those who have been at her bedside and helped her walk through every step of the way — who are just as grateful as she to meet the donor’s family.
It did not take long at all for the Dominy girls and Andie Kay to bond like they knew each other a long time — lot’s of hugs, flowers, gifts, and thoughtful conversations.
Photo by P.A. Geddie
“She’s a piece that’s been missing for two years,” Reagan says. “Her personality is neat — so bubbly and energetic. She fits with us. This is not a casual acquaintance. She’s family now.”
Andie Kay gave the girls a purple stethoscope and they each listened to their dad’s heart beating.
Ramsey smiles big with sparkling eyes as she says, “I haven’t heard that heartbeat in two years.”
Photo by P.A. Geddie
The girls present Andie Kay with a large photo of their dad and mother. And they lay his worn bible on the table to bring them all comfort as they said it did for him.
Andie Kay also brought them “Make AK OK — Keeping the Beat” T-shirts from the two fundraisers that helped her with medical expenses.
The families visit for several hours. Lots of stories about Steven that brought laughter and tears.
Photo by P.A. Geddie
Andie Kay says this was one of the greatest days of her life.
“Our heart is so full,” she says. “There are no words perfect enough to describe this perfect day. I have been dreaming of this moment for two years and it was better than I’ve ever imagined. Unfortunately, due to hemochromatosis and now, because of my transplant, my dream of having kids of my own won’t ever happen. Fortunately, I have been blessed with a beautiful niece, and now, I get three beautiful bonus children. My hero gave me life, basically cured me of my blood disorder, and he keeps giving me wonderful gifts. I’m forever grateful to this beautiful man.”
At one point in the day Reagan said she had something important to ask Andie Kay and voices at the long table quieted eager to hear.
It seems Reagan’s “Senior Night” was coming up in a couple of weeks in Kirbyville and the students are escorted across the football field by their parents. Reagan wanted to know if Andie Kay would fill in for her father.
Andie Kay accepted immediately, even thought she’d have to make a 400-mile round trip after a music performance the night before.
“Their father walks with me every day,” Andie Kay says. “I’d do anything for them.”
So on November 9 Andie Kay and her family make the trip to Kirbyville for this very important game night at the local high school.
But first, there are two important people she needs to see — Steven’s mother Sharon and sister Stacy — so they meet before the game.
Photo by Casey Liles
Photo by Casey Liles
Lot’s of hugs and tears, then Sharon and Stacy take turns listing to the heartbeat.
“Boy was it pounding away so strong,” Stacy says. “Talk about chill bumps. His big, loving heart is still here with us and is beating away with Andie Kay. We’re blessed to now have her as part of our family.”
Sharon was just as affected.
“It was very emotional,” she says. “It was a little strange to think your child’s heart is still beating — he’s gone but his spirit lives on and his heart lives on in somebody else and they’re taking care of him.”
Photo by Casey Liles
Andie Kay asks Sharon if she should call her Mrs. Dominy.
Sharon says, “You can call me Sharon, or MiMi, or anything as long as it’s nice.”
“I’ll just call you Mom,” Andie Kay says with another tender hug.
Sharon said she didn’t know how she was going to react before they met but she somewhat feels like she’s meeting her child and it felt natural.
“Because she is, in a way, my child. It was just easy. I know her. She really is like a daughter, an extension of our family. It’s all wonderful. So good to know her. Her eye color is the same as Steven’s.”
Sharon says she loves Andie Kay’s music and plays a recent song release for all her friends and she hopes to see her live on stage before too long.
Stacy has plans for that too. Her nursing classes take her to Tyler quite often and she hopes she and Andie Kay can meet there soon.
“Meeting her finally was amazing for me,” Stacy says, although bittersweet. “We’re having this meeting because he’s not here is what’s hard. But you get happiness and joy from knowing this precious woman was on her death bed literally and is now walking and talking and healthy and happy and able to be here. I’m so grateful she’s okay. We love her.”
Like Sharon, Stacy says she listens to Andie Kay’s music in the car often and shares it with others.
“She’s got a beautiful voice. She sounds like an angel. She has an angel with her and maybe that’s coming out in her voice — that’s what I like to imagine.”
Seeing the softness and lovingness about Andie Kay, Stacy wonders how much of her brother is really with her.
“Steven was very loving and had the biggest heart for his family and friends. I like to think some of that is coming through to her. It’s gotta be.”
Meeting Andie Kay helps her feel closer to Steven, Stacy says.
“He’s given us this relationship with her and it does make us feel better. Nothing will ever take his place or change his leaving us but knowing it’s not in vain, that he still continues to do good and help people — it gives us that feeling that he’s still with us.”
Some of Steven’s close friends, the “Five,” were there to meet Andie Kay too.
With Steven gone, they asked Andie Kay to be the honorary “fifth” of their group.
The friends’ names are Roger, Chad, Andy, and Bryan, interestingly names Andie Kay is all too familiar with since they each belong to a member of her own family or close relationship.
Beyond the similar friends’ names, the coincidences in the two families’ lives are not lost on any of them. The kids’ maternal grandmother’s name is Andrea. Sharon is also the name of Andie Kay’s close aunt. Andie Kay is crazy about Elvis and Reagan’s middle name is Preslee, inspired by him.
Andie Kay also gets to meet Steven’s son Tyson while in Kirbyville, who was a little slower to come around, his mother says.
“He gets his emotions from Steven,” Dolly says. “He thought he wouldn’t be able to control his sadness. But after he talked with her a few minutes he was okay. Once you meet Andie you love her. He loves her as much as we all do.”
Leaving the high school the families head over to the football stadium.
As Andie Kay and Reagan take their place on the field, Andie Kay is wearing Steven’s Kirbyville High School football letterman jacket. Over the loud speaker system an announcer gets the crowds attention to tell them about Reagan’s guest. “Tonight she has a very special escort — her dad’s heart and liver recipient, Andie Kay Joyner. Ladies and gentlemen, her dad’s heart is with her tonight.”
Reagan is beaming as they walk across the field arm in arm and says the experience felt as natural as it could be. Later, standing with little sister Ramsey and Andie Kay, she tells a reporter that Andie Kay’s now part of the family. “She’s not getting away from us.”
That’s okay with Andie Kay, she says, “I’m here for them always.”
Photo by Beverly Burchett
Andie Kay is very grateful for the opportunity to walk with Reagan and to meet Sharon, Stacy, Tyson, and more family and friends on her trip to Kirbyville.
“It was an honor to walk my hero’s daughter down the field on her ‘Senior Night.’ Meeting my donor’s closest family and friends, they couldn’t have been more welcoming or loving. I got to know him a little better through these wonderful people and feel even closer to him than I did already.”
They all plan to stay in touch and in fact already do through social media and even snail mail. Andie Kay sings about “her angel” when she’s performing. The Dominys and Andie Kay’s family plan to see each other in person as much as they can.
Dolly could not be more thrilled about this developing relationship with the kids.
“Andie fills so many different roles for them,” she says. “They see her as part of their dad, but also like family. She texts them congrats and good luck, she sent a goody box for Halloween, she wears many hats for them. They really needed her. She’d be at all their stuff like he was if she lived closer. She helped them emotionally. I think Steven would be so pleased.”
Not only has Andie Kay found new love with the Dominy family but for the first time in about 10 years she has a serious boyfriend. “He just may be the one,” she says.
“This life is getting a little bit sweeter and I am so blessed to still be here to experience it all.”
Andie Kay is still here because Steven Dominy chose to say “yes” to being a donor. It was important to him.
It took Sharon a while after her son’s death to recall a conversation she had with Steven about the topic just a short time before he died. She said he told her about talking with Reagan about signing up as an organ donor when she went to get her driver’s license that summer.
“He told her she should be a donor and they talked about it,” Sharon recalls.
At 15, Reagan wanted to know why that was important to him and why she should sign up to donate her organs when her time comes to leave this earth. Sharon said Steven told them both, “If you’re going to go and they can help somebody else, why wouldn’t you?”
“That’s what he said — ‘why wouldn’t you take care of somebody else.’”
Meeting Andie Kay and seeing first hand why her dad was so right, Reagan says her driver’s license proudly shows a little red heart in the corner.
According to Donate Life America, currently 125,000 men, women, and children await lifesaving organ transplants. Even the largest football stadium in the United States could not fit the number of patients on the national transplant waiting list. Another person is added to the list every 10 minutes. To join the Donate Life Texas Registry go to www.donatelifetexas.org. To learn more about the process of organ donation, visit Southwest Transplant Alliance at www.organ.org.