They had just finished burying their 21-year-old daughter under a big walnut tree at the old Miami Cemetery in Corwin as a bagpiper had played a mournful rendition of Amazing Grace.
Now they were back at their country church, Dodds Pentecostal Church of God south of Waynesville, for a downhome meal — fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes, dumplings, macaroni salad and much more — carried in in covered dishes by the fellow parishioners.
Mike and Tabby Coffman — accompanied by their 20-year-old daughter Sydney — sat in the back of the room dressed mostly in black but managed to light up some when they talked about a couple of matters of the heart.
When it came to Savana, the conversation wasn’t about the genetic glitch in her heart that had brought so many problems over the past 6 ½ years and ultimately caused her death at the Cleveland Clinic eight days ago, it was about the always-full and caring embrace she put on life.
And when it came to Coldwater — the Mercer County town of which the family knows very little and yet knows oh so much — they still marveled at the way people there once had opened their hearts and purse strings for Savana, a girl they didn’t know other than that she was an ailing cheerleader from Clinton-Massie, the school the Cavaliers would face at Welcome Stadium in a football playoff game.
Three days before that mid-November game in 2007, Savana — who had learned in early October that she had the same kind of heart problem her mom had and that hers was working at less than 25 percent — got a heart transplant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
That had been yet another blow to a good family and it was further complicated because Mike had lost his job at General Motors and the family now had no health insurance.
“I remember we had an administrative meeting a few days before that game and we had heard about the girl from Clinton-Massie so we decided, ‘Let’s try to do something to help,’ ” said Eric Goodwin, the Coldwater athletics director.
“I sent emails to community people and we put out a bucket in the office where we were selling tickets to the game. Students, people from around town, they all started dropping money in the bucket and people brought money in and we started getting more and more.
“Most were smaller amounts, but I remember one junior high boy showing up with an envelope with $1,000 in it. I went, ‘Wait up a minute. Do your parents know you have this?’ We called them and they said, ‘Yes, we want to give that and we wanted him to bring it in.’ ”
Before the game, Coldwater officials handed Sydney and her uncle — Mike and Tabby were at the hospital with Savana — a check for $15,180 to go toward medical bills, all of it collected in less than three days.
“Can you imagine that?” Tabby was now saying, still incredulous all these years later. “We didn’t know anyone in Coldwater. We just know it’s a town up north some place.”
At the game, which the eventual state champion Cavaliers won decisively, Clinton-Massie fans hung up a banner that simply said: “Thank you Coldwater.”
Although Savana had always wanted to visit the town of her benefactors, her health issues and those of her mom prevented that. But she was honored at the state basketball tournament in Columbus and she was escorted onto the court by then-Coldwater principal Steve Keller.
“After that, his daughter, who worked for Abercrombie & Fitch, I think, sent Savana and me gift cards at Christmas and all kinds of clothes and bags,” Sydney said.
“We could never say thank you enough for what Coldwater did for us,” Tabby said.
And yet, you could say Savana did just that by the way she lived her life after her heart transplant.
‘Three good years’
Tabby Hymer was a 15-year-old sophomore at Franklin High when she met Mike Coffman, who was 20 and already had graduated from Waynesville High.
“My girlfriend and I were going to our football game in Miamisburg and we’d stopped at the McDonald’s there to get something to eat,” she remembered. “Mike had stopped there, too. He was on his way to a George Jones concert.”
Actually, Mike was inside and tapped on the store window as they came through the drive-through . Their eyes met and it was, as they say, kismet.
“We ended up switching numbers with each other, but that was it,” Tabby said. “I was just 15 and wasn’t allowed to date, so we talked on the phone a few times.”
They finally went out when she was 17 and three years later they married. Savana came a couple of years later and a year after that they had Sydney. It was then that Tabby’s heart problems were diagnosed and in 1995 she had a heart transplant.
“The girls have been around this their whole life — the sickness, nurses coming to the house, hospital visits,” Tabby said. “They were used to it.”
Whether or not that played a part in Savana’s empathetic nature, one thing is certain: She cared about … everything.
“I remember her walking home from school crying,” Tabby said. “I was like, what’s wrong?
“Turns out, it had been raining that day and she was trying to save all the earthworms in the street. She had been throwing them all back into the yards. She didn’t want them to die. Back then already, she knew how precious life was.”
It was early in her freshman year that Savana began to complain of shortness of breath. At first she thought she had asthma, but after some trips to Urgent Care, it was realized there was something more serious. She was hospitalized and the heart problem was discovered.
After some initial setbacks following the transplant, Savana had “three good years,” her mom said.
She was a Clinton-Massie cheerleader throughout high school, was on the bowling team and danced at a studio in Springboro.
Although she had been hospitalized at the end of her senior year, she was released the day of her graduation ceremony and marched with her classmates.
After that she began classes at Sinclair Community College, where she also learned sign language so she could help hearing-impaired students. When the hospital had children who were nervously facing a heart transplant, Savana often came in to speak to them.
Her family talked about her far-reaching embrace of life, how she liked to garden, loved her three dogs (a German shorthaired pointer, a yorkipoo and a toy poodle), how she was best friends with her sister and how, in the past year or so, she had a steady boyfriend, Stephen Purkey.
“And she loved to bake, too,” Sydney said.
Tabby nodded: “Oh Lord, she baked some funky stuff.”
“Cakes, cookies, she took them into work so people could have them, too. She could bake,” Sydney said before flashing a smile her parents understood.
“Some of her cookin’ though — she had a casserole we probably all could have passed on.”
Put others first
“She didn’t let anything go by,” Tabby said. “She knew exactly what she wanted and she went after it. She had her life planned.
“I went through her room the other day and there was her notebook. She had everything scheduled. She had gotten her phlebotomist certificate at Sinclair and she was getting all set to start her new job drawing blood at Bethesda North.
“She had decided the classes she was going to take next in college. She wanted to get a real estate license and then she wanted to buy her own home.”
In the process Savana had deeply influenced her sister, who is now going to nursing school.
“I had told myself I never-ever wanted to be a nurse,” Sydney said. “I had seen too much over the years and figured I’d be too emotional. But after I finished my classes at Sinclair, I really thought about it and I know all about the hardships patients face. And I thought this would be a way to give back. I know the way nurses have helped our family.”
Savana had worked one week at her new job when she came home one January day feeling ill. “She said, ‘Mom, I think I ate something bad,’ ” Tabby said. “She started vomiting and the next day she still was. That’s when I said, ‘We’re going to Cleveland to see my doctors.’ ”
“We got her up there just in time. She needed a new heart. They put her on a heart-lung machine. Even then when she was in ICU she was worrying about other people first.
“There are no doors on the rooms in ICU and even though she was very sick, she could hear the buzzers and beepers going off in other rooms and she knew what that meant. The nurses told me she told them, ‘You need to go help those people, I‘m OK.’ ”
When no heart became available, Tabby said doctors had to do “a total mechanical heart transplant” on Savana. “They couldn’t close her, the heart was too big, so her chest had to stay open.”
Complications developed and she died Feb. 22.
Wednesday night, they had a five-hour visitation at the church and thousands showed up. “After just 90 minutes they already had run out of the 500 announcements they had,” Tabby said. “They had to go back to the funeral home seven times that night to make more announcements.”
The following afternoon, Savana’s funeral service drew an overflow crowd to the small church. In the middle of all the songs and words of worship, Sydney stood and gave a touching tribute to her sister.
Now the Coffmans are trying to help others. They hope to educate people about the need for organ donations and no one makes that case better than the 43-year-old Tabby.
She’s on dialysis every day for 14 hours. She needs a new heart and kidney and has been on the wait list for nearly three years.
“So many people are up there (Cleveland) and everywhere just waiting,” Tabby said, her voice starting to break. “If Savana had gotten a real heart before the mechanical one, I believe she would have made it.”
The family has also started the Savana Coffman Scholarship Fund. Donations can be made at any branch of the LCNB National Bank.
“We’re hoping we can get enough to offer a scholarship every year to a student from Clinton-Massie and one from Coldwater,” said Mike, now a power lineman working out of IBEW Local 71.
The Coffmans haven’t worked out the details yet, but they may well look for someone who is embracing life as fully as Savana did.
“The night before she went for her mechanical heart, I remember she was so nervous,” Tabby said in a voice beginning to waver again. “But then she just sucked it up and right before they wheeled her back for surgery, she said ‘OK, let’s just get this over with.’
“That was the last time she was conscious and able to talk. She just wanted to get going so she could finish the rest of her life. She had so much she wanted to do for others and she just had so much she wanted to do herself.”
To the end, Savana Coffman just had so much heart.
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