Family members say Oct. 18 felt like any other day, the way it began. It was busy with normal types of things — work, errands, chores and a teenager having a car that needed repairs.
Teddy Perry, 19, needed his grandpa Don’s help because his “crazy car” wasn’t running. So grandpa went over to where Teddy was staying — at his aunt’s house, because Teddy, who graduated from Ames High this past May, helped watch out for his 9-year-old cousin, making sure he got on and off the bus and had everything he needed for school each day while his mom was at work.
“Don spent three-and-a-half hours with him working on that car that morning,” Don’s wife and Teddy’s grandma, Mary Perry said. The car needed a little more than grandpa and Teddy could figure out together. So they took it to Shaffer’s in Ames to have it worked on. Everything seemed fine when they parted ways.
Teddy’s mom Joanie Zavala messaged her son about this and that a few times during the day, and he messaged back. “There was nothing out of the ordinary,” Joanie said. The only thing that wasn’t going well that day was that she didn’t feel the best, so instead of heading to a second job that she has, she headed home to rest when she got off work. But that rest came to an abrupt end, when a Story County Sheriff’s Deputy and a chaplain arrived at her door.
Everybody was home — Teddy’s older brother, his younger sister and Joanie’s husband, Hector, who has been the best dad ever to Teddy and became his official stepdad two-and-a-half years ago — but it was Joanie the people at the door came to talk to. The dogs were barking, so she stepped outside, and that’s when they told her. Teddy had shot himself and was being air-lifted to Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines.
“I was screaming and I kept falling over,” Joanie said. And she begged the chaplain to tell her the truth if her son was dead. “He (the chaplain) promised he wasn’t.”
Mary soon got the call. “Joanie called me at 8:04,” she said. The time is etched in her memory. She dropped the phone. But she quickly regrouped, and yelled at Don. “We took off for Des Moines.”
When they arrived, Joanie said, “They told us right away that it was not survivable.” And right away, Mary said, “Organ donation,” and Joanie said, “By all means, yes.” The two would learn later that the doctor broke down and wept when he heard their wishes, because he wouldn’t have to be “the monster” that walks in and talks to a family during their time of tremendous grief about this sensitive topic.
“They all cried with us,” Joanie said. “The nurses were wonderful. They wanted to see pictures of him,” because, as Joanie and Mary explained, he had shot himself in the head and was not recognizable as he lay in that hospital bed.
The importance of organ donation is one thing at Mary and Joanie want people to take away from this story. The effects of bullying; the good and bad of social media; and the sadness of suicide are other topics they touch upon.
It happened north of Nevada
Teddy shot himself at approximately 6 p.m., along a gravel road north of Nevada; one mile north of the Milford blacktop and one mile west of S-14. “That’s a road where his grandpa had taught him to drive a stick shift,” Mary said.
Joanie wanted, no matter how difficult, to know everything about Teddy’s death, including how it was that he had been found so quickly and had been kept breathing so that his organs were viable. Social media was already full of rumors and people’s own thoughts about what had happened; some of what was said caused Teddy’s younger sister even more suffering.
But social media also was used for good by some. Through it, Joanie and her family were able to connect with the woman who found Teddy, and with her son, who sat with him along that gravel road until the responders arrived.
While Joanie said it’s not her place to share their names here, she will be forever grateful to this mother and son, who live in that area, and to a farmer who heard the gunshots after seeing Teddy drive by and knew help was needed.
The woman had driven by right after Teddy pulled the trigger. “I can’t imagine what she went through,” Joanie said. Joanie said this woman was so distraught, she drove up the road a little from where Teddy was and then called her son, and “he came running and sat with Teddy and counted his breaths for the responders. He told us it was only five minutes until the Roland EMTs were there, and they vented him right away; that’s why his organs could be donated,” Joanie said.
Organ donation is a three-day process, Joanie and Mary say. “There’s a lot of paperwork,” Joanie said. “And there’s a lot of body-saving measures that are taken, along with the fact that two doctors must declare the person brain-dead before anything happens. Joanie and Hector sat in during one of those exams.
The three days allowed the family, a tight-knit group, to spend valuable last hours with Teddy. “They gave us full access to him,” Mary said. “And someone from the Iowa Donor Network was there with us all the time to answer questions and provide support. I have never been treated with so much love and compassion.”
Teddy’s family has nothing but good things to say about their experience at Iowa Methodist. And the hospital’s chaplain was wonderful. “He even wrote a song for Teddy’s funeral,” Joanie said. “He said our family impacted everyone (at the hospital).”
Now, Teddy’s family hopes to have an impact when it comes to the topics of suicide and bullying.
Since the day of Teddy’s death, they’ve openly talked about his suicide on social media and with the people around him. Since there’s usually a stigma surrounding suicide, Mary said some have questioned why the family is talking about it so openly.
“Without transparency, you have rumors, and I’m not going to have that,” Mary said. Her daughter agreed. “The stigma (surrounding suicide) needs to go,” Joanie said. “He had depression.”
The family is beyond sad about what happened, but no matter how Teddy died, they are remembering how he lived and filled their lives with so much joy. “I’m still proud of him,” his mother said, placing her hand over a beautiful urn with a fishing scene carved in it. Teddy didn’t get to go fishing a lot, but he loved it.”
Teddy’s life was filled with good times, but also with significant struggles, both among among his peers and going back to witnessing a significant trauma in his childhood. And he’s suffered loss. His biological father preceded him in death.
One-on-one, they said, Teddy was great with friends while he was growing up. It was easier for him to talk to people as he got to know them better, because he suffered from something called, “selective mutism,” and had trouble speaking in group situations. His relatives hoped that getting to know kids one-on-one, would bring about more friendships and support at school. But kids can be mean when they group together, and at school things were never easy. “He got picked on a lot when he was in school for not speaking,” Joanie said. In fact, he took online classes for his last year to avoid the social struggles he often faced in school.
They don’t know what happened on Oct. 18 that caused Teddy to make such a final decision about his life. After all, car troubles weren’t something he’d take his life over.
“He didn’t leave any note,” his mother said, “but we found journals he’d written about being bullied and mistreated. He was confused about why people pretended to like him and just used him.”
Mary continued about what the journals and several people closest to Teddy would help them understand in the days following his death. “We found out that he was struggling with friends.” School had been one place he was treated badly, but social media and texting keep people connected away from that setting, and sometimes not in a good way. Teddy wanted what most of us want — to be accepted and to be liked by his peers.
“Teddy was a follower…he wanted to please everybody,” his mom said. If only he would have believed his own value, like how good he was with youngsters, for example. “Little kids just flocked to him.”
In fact, Teddy’s best friend for the past few years has been his 3-year-old cousin, McKade. Whenever they were together, which was often at grandma’s house, “he did everything for her and with her. He even let her involve him in tea parties, and that makes Mary and Joanie laugh a little. They describe seeing this kid, 6-feet, 4-inches tall — yes, Teddy was a big guy — sitting with this little 3-year-old girl who adored him.
The bad and good of social media
Social media and the world of texting, giving everyone the ability to communicate with others, while not having to sit face-to-face with them, has had a negative impact on relationships, Mary and Joanie agree. It’s easy, they say, to be mean to someone when you are just typing in words, and that has a major factor in building, or reducing, a person’s self worth, especially a young person.
Social media can also be used in good ways. After sharing what had happened, Mary said, “we have literally gotten thousands of messages from friends, family, from people I don’t even know…” Joanie said social media is how she saw that a memorial was set up by a beautiful stranger — now a forever friend — at the site of Teddy’s death, and when she was tagged on a post about it, she then got hundreds of messages of support. “And people thanked me for saying it was ‘suicide,’” she said.
Suicide is a sad event that impacts too many lives. Joanie recently attended a survivors’ group, where she felt encouraged and supported by others who share her pain. She wishes that more people could see suicide differently.
“My feelings,” Mary said, “are that none of us can judge and no family should judge.”
Heartland Baptist Church in Ames was filled on the day of Teddy’s funeral, Nov. 4. “I wish Teddy could have seen all the people who came there just for him,” Mary said.
Joanie believes in angels and said she now has an angel, with size 14 feet, looking after her. “I’ve heard his feet in the house; my husband has too, and we laughed.” Knowing Teddy was a bit of a prankster with his family, they are all braced to see what little jokes he’ll play on them as an angel.
All his loved ones are proud, especially when it comes to the gifts of life that Teddy was able to share with others. A 27-year-old woman with cystic fibrosis received his lungs; a 65-year-old man with cardiomyopathy received his heart; a 59-year-old man received his liver; and two men, a 21-year-old and 31-year-old, received his kidneys. Teddy was among the 1 percent of donors where all his major organs could be donated, plus he was young, and had never used alcohol or drugs.
Just last week, Joanie looked up the organ donation list. “Seven hundred, twenty-two Iowans are waiting for organ donation right now,” she said.
So, as you visit with family during the holiday season that is upon us, Mary has a big request. Talk about the things that matter; talk about how your words on any given day can affect another person’s life. And talk about organ donation now, so you are ready for that decision if the unthinkable should happen.