Zach Downs was a 33-year-old with no health problems. A father of three and a property manager for a vacation rental company. Now, after being hours away from death – he’s “a perfect candidate for a Kidney transplant,” according to his wife. He’s also been let go from his job. His wife had to make ends meet on her salary alone – until neighbors stepped in.
In the space of a month, during the Christmas holiday season, Zach went from a normal dad who coached peewee football for the kids in his Hammock Bay subdivision to a man clinging to life in a hospital bed in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Unbeknownst to him and his family, Downs was born with a kidney defect. At 33, they shut down.
Signs were vague at first. “He’s 33. Young, healthy, he’s never been to the doctor, because, you know, you don’t think you have to go to the doctor at 33,” said his wife, Regan Downs, on a phone conversation at Zach’s bedside, “[One] just assume[s] that everything is going to be fine.”
Life chugged along until December of 2022 for the Downs family – which ended with a trip to Disney World.
During the vacation, the family got hints something was off. “That was the start of the bad symptoms,” Regan remembers, “We were at Disney and he would wake up in the morning with bad nosebleeds. His pillow was covered in blood.” At first, they thought it was the result of an ulcer.
But then Zack began to vomit. The Downs family put that symptom up to bad hibachi – something they’d all come down with a couple of days prior to the incident.
They returned to Freeport on Christmas Eve from Disney. Zack’s body continued to deteriorate. The nosebleeds continued and Zack turned grey. Still, he decided it was nothing too out of the ordinary, and the family went on to Gulfport to visit Regan’s extended family. By the end of the drive – Zack was in so much pain he began to weep. He shook he felt so much pain.
Zack went to the emergency room, where the doctors drew blood samples. The results made the facts clear: Zack’s Kidneys functioned at about 3% a normal person’s. He would die in a matter of hours if he didn’t start dialysis. He would spend the next two weeks in the hospital.
While recovering, Zack was in contact with his bosses at the Scenic Stays Vacation Rental Company. Via text, he told his manager he suffered renal failure, but continued to check his texts and emails.
According to text messages provided by Zack’s wife, Regan, his boss told him that he had switched Zack’s emails to another employee’s inbox and changed the password. “Don’t concern yourself with work while you are recovering,” a message allegedly from Zack’s immediate supervisor said, “Just concentrate on getting better and staying in touch. thanks man.”
Regan Downs confirmed Scenic Stays paid Zack for the time he was in the hospital.
Life changed again on January 12th, when Zack returned to work. Zack came from the dialysis appointment he would need three times per week to stay alive until a matching kidney could be found for him. When he arrived at work at 8:30 – he was brought into an office by supervisors and told he no longer had a job at Scenic Stays.
We reached out to Zack’s supervisor and the company president of Scenic Stays. They confirmed Zack’s employment was terminated and added in a statement, “His departure from our company was in no way due to his illness. We wish him well in his recovery.” Scenic Stays employed Zack for about four months when he was terminated.
Scenic Stays told Mid Bay News they could not say more about the situation because of privacy concerns. Due to the “sensitivities of health situations, [we] want to be appropriate.” Partner at Scenic Stays, Ron Whitfield, said on the phone.
Regardless, Downs and his family don’t feel they have recourse. “I don’t really have the time or energy, or really even the money right now to fight [Scenic Stays],” Regan said. She won’t hire a lawyer or pursue the case in court.
With Zack in recovery mode and on dialysis, it fell to Regan to be the sole breadwinner for the family. Zack focuses on getting better and looking for a new job.
After hearing their story – a friend, Bailey Gibson, started a Go Fund Me page to raise $12,000 to get the family through the next couple of months.
Response was rapid. In just a couple of days, the fundraiser brought in more than $13,000. As of January 31st, the friends and family have raised $14,468 for the family of five. People from as close as their neighborhood in Hammock Bay, to classmates from South Walton High School to states away, gave money.
“Oh my gosh, I cried,” Regan remembers, “Zack was crying. I cannot believe it. People who we have not talked to since high school, like 10 years we have not talked to these people, and they are donating thousands of dollars. It’s just unreal. I have a big family, so they are all supportive. But, these people I don’t even know, like in Hammock Bay. Strangers are sending $500 because they are just kind people. There [are] no words for how thankful we are. This community really pulls together, they really do. This shows it.”
Right now, to stay alive, Zack must show up at a dialysis clinic three times per week and have his blood cleaned of impurities – something his kidneys no longer can do.
But there, is good news for the Downs family. According to Regan – Zack’s nephrologist says Zack is a ‘perfect candidate’ for a transplant. He is young, and doesn’t have diabetes or hypertension.
“Hospital’s will be fighting over him [to do his transplant],” Regan said. Zack and Regan look forward to a long life together – after they sign some paperwork for the hospital to get him on the donor list. “I’m thinking, maybe by the end of the year, we’ll be getting close to a new kidney.”