Organ donor inspires children’s book

Abby and Reid Gray would never have known Clayton Sparks if not for a tragedy that connected them.


The story of how their paths crossed became the basis of “Clayton Sparks Leaves His Mark,” a children’s book penned by Abby, released in April.

“This heartwarming story encourages compassion, sharing and the ultimate gift of life,” she said.

The long journey that ultimately brought them all together began with Reid’s first signs of liver failure, before he met his bride-to-be. He had tried to enroll in a life insurance program in 2010 but was denied after a routine blood test revealed his liver enzymes were through the roof.

Reid had no idea — and never would have, had it not been for the blood work.

Still, the reason for the high numbers was elusive. Nothing Reid tried, including completely cutting out alcohol, seemed to help. He met with several internists, who also could not find a cause.

After three doctors chalked it up as a fluke, Reid stopped worrying about it. After all, the high liver enzymes did not seem to negatively impact his quality of life — and he was only 24 at the time.

By Abby Gray

BC Books LLC

26 pages, $11.99 for soft cover; $17.99 for hard cover

To purchase, visit To sign up as an organ donor, visit

About four years later, however, that all changed. Reid was on his honeymoon with Abby when he fell ill.

“I had stomach issues that felt more serious than a normal stomach bug,” he said.

Reid was ultimately diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease. When his doctor asked if he had other health issues, the high liver enzymes were mentioned.

The doctor made a connection — patients with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare disease of the bile ducts, often also have ulcerative colitis. His suspicion was confirmed with an ultrasound. With PSC, scarring occurs in bile ducts, which eventually become blocked, resulting in bile accumulation that damages the liver.

According to the American Liver Foundation, PSC, which is chronic, often develops slowly. Patients often go years before exhibiting symptoms. Liver failure can occur 10 to 15 years after diagnosis — and sometimes even later.

Reid recalled his doctor telling him: “You don’t seem to be affected. It could be 10 years from now that you start talking about a liver transplant. Or it could never get to that point.”

Regardless, Reid was floored.

“It hits really hard,” he said. “The doctor explained that PSC does not have a cure — with the exception of a liver transplant. And even that is not 100 percent.”

PSC could return in the transplanted liver as well.

Reid started taking medications to manage the ulcerative colitis and his liver. He started scheduling regular appointments — and routine colonoscopies, since the diagnosis increases the risk of colon cancer.

Abby was optimism. Doctors would continue monitoring Reid, and it did not seem to be progressing quickly. “I wasn’t worried,” she said.

Reid, on the other hand, felt wrecked. “When there’s a problem, I like to fix it,” he said. “And with this, there was no fix.”

In need of a donor

It didn’t end up taking 10 years for Reid’s health to decline. In 2015, the itching began. It felt like it was coming from the inside — and no matter what Reid tried, it would not stop.

“You can’t scratch to satisfy it,” he said.

In March 2017, Reid was first hospitalized for cholangitis, an inflammation of the bile duct system, after waking up sweating, in intense pain, with a fever and chills. He was treated with antibiotics, but it happened again the following month.

At that point, doctors used an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography — which combines endoscopy and fluoroscopy. While looking at the bile ducts, doctors inserted a probe with an inflatable balloon to widen the area.

As Reid recovered, the doctor explained to Abby that her husband had a 90 percent chance of developing liver cancer. And cancer in the bile ducts, or cholangiocarcinoma, is difficult to treat.

“It was really scary,” she said. “His parents and my mom were in the waiting room. I walked out to tell them, but I couldn’t even say the words.”

At that point, the idea of ​​a transplant no longer seemed part of a distant future.

“It wasn’t down the line,” Reid said. “It was like this has to happen now.”

His doctors at Houston Methodist put him on the transplant list in June 2017 — and completed all of the necessary testing and blood work. Reid’s doctors also gave him orders: “Do whatever you can get transplanted.”

To qualify for a transplant, he needed a high score in the Model for End-stage Liver Disease. But in Reid’s case, his liver might seem functional because his disease affected mainly the bile ducts. So the odds were against him. He had to take charge.

Reid signed up in other states where the MELD score requirements were lower. He also tried to get on the list for a living donor at the Cleveland Clinic in August 2018.

“We were told that a living donor would be our last resort,” Abby said. “And we were at our last straw.”

All the while, regular biopsies were scheduled to see if he developed liver cancer. At one point, he started to hope that he had cancer — only because it would increase his MELD score.

Reid’s doctor told him, “I’m sure you have cancer, but I just can’t find it. I would be shocked if you didn’t.”

Abby stepped away from her job in May 2018.

“I just wanted to devote all of my time to figuring this out,” she said.

Up the ante

Abby began writing about Reid’s diagnosis and search for a donor. Already, she had been blogging about the couple’s struggle with infertility. In four years, they had been through three rounds of IVF.

“We had an amazing support system of people who were following that story,” Abby said.

In 2018, her two final embryos were implanted.

“We got pregnant with twins,” Abby said. “That upped the ante. We felt under pressure.”

At the same time, friends of friends and relatives had all been trying to donate to help the couple — but no match could be found.

Then out of the blue, in January 2019, Abby got a call from her mother, Dee Everett. A family in Willis, near her hometown of Huntsville, had just lost their son, Clayton Sparks, in a skiing accident. He was an organ donor.

His mother, Beth Sparks, was on the phone with her sister in the hospital when she saw something pop up on Facebook. “Someone wrote, ‘Beth, I have a friend who needs a liver. I hate to ask, but if I don’t, I’ll always regret it,’” she said.

Beth immediately wanted to help. She said, “I ran over to the doctor and asked, ‘Can we do a direct donation?’

“He said that never works,” Beth recalled. “Everything has to line up, the blood type, size. He said it has never happened as long as he’d been doing it.”

She and her husband, Larry, Clayton’s father, were told not to get their hopes up — and neither did Reid.

In fact, when Reid and Abby heard about the possibility, they were at a wedding. They decided to stay put, wait and see and not to get excited.

Then her mother called, “Abby, I think this is it. Everything is checking out.”

With tears in her eyes, Abby looked over at her husband.

“Reid, we’ve got to go,” she said.

A miraculous match

The next day, on Jan. 14, 2019, Abby and Reid were at the JC Walter Jr. Transplant Center at Houston Methodist.

“We were never fully sure if it would happen,” Abby recalled. “You never know.”

Because Clayton was an organ donor, he was able to give to 80 people in all.

Dr. David Victor, specialist in transplant hepatology at Houston Methodist, was helping Reid, while a team from Houston flew to Colorado to look at the liver to see if it could be a match.

“It’s a very powerful gift and honor; every organ donated provides the gift of life for someone,” he said.

Clayton’s liver was a match for Reid.

“It’s an extremely involved surgery,” Victor said. “And the patient is left with a giant scar on his abdomen.”

Recipients make a lifelong commitment to take care of their new organ. “They continue to work the rest of their lives to honor the gift,” Victor said.

That includes taking daily immunosuppressants to ensure the body will not reject the transplant.

During the procedure, Abby received a call from Beth. “She had just lost a son and was still concerned about my husband,” Abby said.

Reid awoke with a new liver and his phone was full of messages from individuals he did not know yet. “They were all Clayton’s friends and family,” Abby said.

They were congratulating Reid and wishing him the best of health.

Reid had a number of complications after the procedure — but had healed just enough when Abby went into preterm labor. Luckily, he was cleared to drive under the circumstances.

The twins — Oliver Clayton and Kaylee June Gray — arrived April 11, 2019, and were sent to the neonatal intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Hospital. After 19 days, they were able to go home.

Daily gratitude

Reid is grateful for Clayton every day.

“This donation came the month before the kids were born,” he said. And all of his fears about not being around for his children faded away.

“I don’t think words can ever accurately describe it for either of us,” Abby said.

But she did find a way to share their story with her children’s book. The inspiration came from getting to know Clayton’s parents — and developing a relationship with them.

“Basically, they are the grandparents to our kids,” Abby said. “And we’ve heard so many stories about Clayton and the type of person he was, all the amazing things he did for people.”

Clayton was Beth and Larry’s only child together. Larry has a son from a previous marriage, Eric Sparks, who is a member of Bridgewood Farms, a community for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Clayton adored his brother and was a regular at Bridgewood, where he grew close to other clients as well.

“From a young age, he had the ability to feel people’s pain,” Larry Sparks said. “He would always pray for food for the poor or worry about the homeless. When the doctor said he was a donor, it didn’t surprise me.”

Clayton was someone everyone liked. He graduated at the top of his class in high school, earned a degree in physics and started a construction company. He was about to receive his master’s degree from the University of Houston-Downtown, when he died at age 24.

“He was our life, and we miss him terribly,” Beth Sparks said. “When you lose somebody, you lose so much more than just that person, like the idea of ​​being grandparents.”

The Grays were able to fill that void, she explained. The Sparks have become part of their family.

“I think about what would have happened if he hadn’t been a donor, and we would have never met Abby and Reid,” Larry said. “We are so appreciative and value that family so much. They include us in everything.”

The Grays refer to Clayton as their superhero and talk to their children about him often.

While reading children’s books to her twins, she had an idea — why not share Clayton’s story in this format?

She started writing and her mother, who is an artist, tackled the illustrations. They worked from summer to fall in 2021. Abby took an advance copy of the book to the Sparks. She had kept the project a surprise.

“We opened it up and were shocked,” Beth said. “It was an unbelievable gift.”

Abby hopes that each reader is inspired to be more like Clayton.

“I hope that they grow up understanding just who he was — and how to make an impact on others just like he did,” she said. “He’s our hero — and he was a hero to so many people.”

Peyton is a freelance writer in Houston.

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