by nathan oster

Mike Laird used the word “phenomenal” to describe the final Brendon Laird Memorial Benefit trail ride, dinner and auction, noting that Saturday’s fundraiser generated just shy of $20,000 and that enough money has now been raised to fund two annual $1,000 scholarships for years to come.

But the money was secondary this year.

Out of Mike and Andrea’s personal tragedy of losing a son four years ago came the gift of life for others who were clinging to life. Brendon was an organ donor, and while the identities of the recipients of their son’s organs had been a closely-guarded secret, one of them, a woman in Washington state, reached out to Mike when she learned about the benefit.

Nora Cruz of Sunnyside, Wash., received Brendon’s liver and believes it’s the reason she’s still alive. She and her husband Junior dined with Mike and Andrea Friday night and were on hand for both the trail ride and the dinner on Saturday.

Brendon was 18 and just two months from starting his senior year at Greybull High School when he was involved in a one-vehicle rollover early one morning on Crystal Creek Road. He was returning home from work when the accident occurred. He died a few days later, June 6, 2014, at a Billings hospital.

No one around here knew at the time, but Nora Cruz was praying for a miracle two states away. In need of a liver, she’d been on a donor recipient list for four years before being removed, she said because she wasn’t sick enough.

That changed in September of 2013, when cancer was discovered in her liver. Fearing that it would spread, doctors removed it and Nora was not only placed back on the list, but moved near the top due to her dire need for a transplant.

The miracle came June 8, 2014 — two days after Brendon’s death in a Billings hospital.

Nora had been very sick and doesn’t remember much, but Junior recalls the operation “lasting a lot longer than they expected. They went in, saying they were looking at a seven-hour operation. But it was more like 12 to 14 hours. There were some difficulties. They thought it might have been something that happened while the liver was being transported.”

A week after the surgery, doctors discovered that some of the liver — about 25 percent of it, according to Junior — wasn’t getting adequate blood flow. They told Nora that she might be OK long term, but that the potential for problems existed.

The family decided to put Nora’s name back on the list, and miraculously, another liver soon became available. She underwent surgery 14 days later, on June 22, to receive her second liver. It went much better. While she has a few minor complications, Nora is healthy, in good spirits and able to work a full-time job as an administrative assistant in a school district in Washington.

Most of all, though, she and Junior are grateful.

“During those two weeks, Brendon kept me going,” she said.

Nora said when she learned about the benefit and that it was going to be the final one, she and her family made plans to attend. “Something told me I needed to be here,” she said, fighting off tears.

“We’re just very thankful,” said Junior. “We just can’t express our gratitude enough. He is an angel. He was a lifesaver. It was amazing for a kid at that age to think of others, and it’s amazing and remarkable how many lives he’s touched.”

Nora said she’d said goodbye to all of her loved ones before she went in for one of her surgeries. Not only did she come out of it OK. She has flourished. She and her husband were joined at Saturday’s events by their son and three grandchildren.

“Everybody has been so friendly,” said Junior, as he sat at a table with his family on Saturday night at the Greybull Elks Lodge. “We fell in love with Mike and Andrea right away when we met them. We enjoyed our visits with Brendon’s grandparents.

“We love hearing about him and getting to know him a little better. We know that in our house, he won’t be forgotten. We think about him every day.”

 

The benefit

Mike Laird said there were “big hugs, tears and smiles” when he and his wife met Nora and Junior Friday night at Lisa’s and called meeting them “very emotional” for him, his wife Andrea and their daughter Brianna.

They came away from the weekend with a bond that will last forever.

Mike said that even though Nora no longer has Brendon’s liver, it was “the bridge that she needed to get her a little healthier and stronger” for the second liver transplant surgery.

Mike had previously announced that this year’s benefit would be the final one. At the time of the announcement, the thought was, “If we could do about $15,000, it would put us over the benchmark to be able to draw interest in the amount of $2,000 per year.”

Big Horn Federal “is working with us on interest rates” to ensure it, he said.

The event ended up raising nearly $20,000, with most of that coming in Saturday night’s live and silent auctions at the Elks. Two of the auction items fetched $3,000. One was a commemorative banquet rifle purchased by Dave and Teresa Caldwell. The other was a two-day guided goose hunt in the Platte Valley and two shotguns donated by Troy Laird and Colter Larson. A.W. Hunt Construction purchased the goose-hunting package. A quilt memorializing Brendon and his life that was made by Kathy Ewen raised another $2,200, with Darwin Irvine being the buyer.

Mike said it was a fitting finale because of the way the community, their family and friends came together, once again, to ensure that the scholarship in his son’s memory continues for the foreseeable future.

“Even now, we still hear stories all the time about Brendon, and some of them are stories we haven’t even heard before,” he said. “We’re carrying on his legacy. It was one of helping people. He did it in life … and he is still doing it to this day.”