Heart of a champion: 30 years later, Ryan Zinn celebrates life after a heart transplant

PHOTO SUBMITTED Ryan Zinn (left) poses for a photo with his brother, Doug, and mother, Barbara, after his heart transplant surgery.

Ryan Zinn remembers setting two goals as he graduated from eighth grade at Mohawk.

After hearing a high school valedictorian speak at his junior high graduation ceremony, Zinn decided he wanted to be valedictorian of the class of 1991, and he wanted to be a great athlete.

At the time, he had no idea a young man named James would play a huge part in his life.

“I had 14 healthy, perfectly wonderful years,” Zinn said. “I was athletic, healthy, on top of the mountain. The fastest kid in my grade, doing everything non-stop.”

During football season in his freshman year at Mohawk at age 14, he noticed he was no longer the fastest kid on the field. But he didn’t think a lot about it.

PHOTO SUBMITTED Ryan, age 15, on his first day back to school at Mohawk after his transplant.

“Looking back, I think I was already in congestive heart failure,” he said.

When basketball season rolled around, doing sprints at practice became difficult, and he remembers blacking out.

“I’m running down the court and everything got dark and everything got quiet,” he said. “That was the true sign something was wrong.”

It was around Thanksgiving time, and he visited a doctor who recommended taking a break to let his body heal without practices and too much activity.

“That was the beginning of the journey,” he said.

Ryan runs in a Transplant Games of America event. PHOTO SUBMITTED Ryan runs in a Transplant Games of America event.

But rest didn’t make him feel better, and his health got worse.

“By Christmastime, I was having heart palpitations,” he said.

A trip to Mercy Hospital began a seven-week hospital tour, which included Toledo’s Medical College of Ohio (now the University of Toledo Medical Center) and Cleveland Clinic.

He said MCO medical personnel first talked to his parents, Roy and Barbara Zinn, about an enlarged heart and the possible need for a transplant, but they didn’t mention it their son at the time.

“They didn’t want to have the conversation. They didn’t even talk to me about it,” he said. “I would have been one of the youngest heart transplants.”

PHOTO SUBMITTED Marie, Ryan and Sylvia Zinn.

So they went to Cleveland Clinic, and doctors there said the same thing.

They said there were two options. The first was getting on the transplant list and hoping a heart became available. The second was going home with a bunch of medications, and not ever being the active teen he once was.

“We took the medication,” he said. “That transplant idea was just too scary.”

For the rest of his freshman year, Zinn stayed home and kept up with his school work with a tutor.

“I didn’t have the energy to be out and about,” he said.

His goal of becoming a great high school athlete was gone, he thought, but he still had the ability to be a great scholar.

“By the end of my freshman year, I was caught up and right there (academically) with a couple my classmates,” he said.

Then 15 years old, Zinn had adjusted to “the new normal,” he said. “And I was OK with it.”

But that summer, his life changed again.

“I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror and I was yellow,” he said. “I had damage to my liver from the medications. It was just another sign. Things weren’t getting better. I was getting worse.”

Doctors adjusted his medication.

He remembers that Sunday of Labor Day weekend he was sitting at the kitchen table working on homework when his arm starting flying around in the air of its own accord.

He yelled for his mother.

He was having a stroke.

He remembers one of the “toughest moments” of his life.

“When Dad walked into the emergency room, I knew he fit, I knew he was supposed to be there, but I didn’t know his name,” he said. “I didn’t know he was Dad. And I didn’t know his name was Roy. That was scary.”

Back at Cleveland Clinic — after lots more tests — the doctors gave the family two options again: Either get on the transplant list or prepare to die in six months.

“We got on the list,” he said.

And that led to mental health tests as well.

“They’re checking your mental stability,” he said. “You’re going to be alive because some else is not.”

They checked on family support and background support.

“Are you going to be supported in all of this, because there’s a lot of unknowns,” he said.

Zinn said community support was one of the “many wonderful blessings” of being from Tiffin. His parents had moved to Tiffin in 1968 to start a veterinary practice.

“And so our experience was Tiffin’s experience for a lot of people,” he said. “Not that we’re people who want everything out in the public, but when we started this transplant journey, we thought it’s the right thing to talk about.

“At 15 years of age I wasn’t thinking about this, but my parents were thinking about the value of helping others and being open about the experience,” Zinn said. “Thank goodness it was a positive outcome.”

There were articles in newspapers, and frequent reports to students, teachers and administrators at Mohawk High School.

“People wanted to know,” he said.

Back then, transplants were not common.

“As bad as it sounds, I was fortunate to be as ill as I was,” Zinn said. “I was a good candidate and I was at the top of the list.”

His heart damage was severe, but he was otherwise healthy.

“By the grace of God, 17 days later, we got a call,” he said.

That was Sept. 26. James, a 20-year-old college student, had been killed in a car accident, and his family has agreed to donate his heart.

“He (James) and three friends were in the Cleveland area for an event and he was hit in an accident,” Zinn said. “James was an only child. He was my donor.”

Amid their grief over the loss of their son, James’ parents agreed to allow their son’s organs to be donated.

“I was one of a couple people James saved,” he said. “I’m here nearly 30 years later because of James.”

After Zinn received his new heart, he was discharged from the hospital 13 days later.

“I spent an hour at Mohawk the next day,” he said. “After six weeks, my sternum had healed.”

He proceeded to lift weights in the weight room, and after eight to 10 weeks he was conditioning to run track.

“My cardio was gone and I had no muscle mass,” he said.

But he worked on his body, and six months after surgery, he ran in his first track meet since the transplant.

He came in last place, but that didn’t matter.

“I was scared. Everyone in the stands was scared. My coach was scared,” he said. “But I did it.

“I just kept setting more goals,” he said. “My parents never tried to wrap me in bubble wrap. They wanted me to live my life.”

Zinn focused on golf because it was less strenuous than other sports.

“It was a good feeling to be competitive at anything again,” he said. “My senior year I was medalist and MVP of our golf team,” he said. Medalist is the team member with the lowest average score.

But Zinn also ran track, and his 4×100 relay team broke a school record in 1991, his senior year.

“The week after that, I gave the valedictorian speech at graduation,” he said. “Two goals met. All because of James.”

Another reason to run

After high school, Zinn became involved with the Transplant Games of America because he was interested in continuing as an athlete, and a person at Cleveland Clinic told him about the games in Indianapolis that year — 1990 — and he wanted to attend.

“Unfortunately, it was right after I started golf season at Mohawk,” he said. “High school rules wouldn’t allow it. But that’s another story.”

The games take place every other year, so he waited two years and took part in his first Transplant Games in Los Angeles in 1992. He had just finished his freshman year at Ohio State. (He went on to graduate with a degree in engineering.)

“I thought I was going to kick some butt,” he said. “I didn’t get a single medal.”

But he learned a lot.

“That’s what I needed to see,” he said. “I needed to appreciate what I could do. If I keep trying, I could be that. There were some darn good athletes out there.”

Although he had the support of his family and Tiffin community, Zinn said he found a whole new support system.

“I had more and more motivation,” he said. “I had met hundreds of people like me who understood me, who understand what I’ve been through, and that felt good.”

Since then, Zinn has participated in every Transplant Games in the United States in every even year, and many of the World Transplant Games Federation competitions in odd years.

“We’ll be in Salt Lake City the end of this month,” he said.

The only world games he’s missed have been for the birth of his daughter and for some family health issues.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to see the world,” he said. “And we get to show the world who we are. Look at these people who are vibrant. They’re active and they’re alive because of donors.

“That’s the biggest reason we do what we do,” he said. “We tell our story, we run in these games to show there’s life after transplant.

“When you’re done, you could leave your own legacy,” he said. “I’m James’ legacy.”

While the average life span of a heart transplant patient is 10 years, Zinn is almost at 30 years.

“I’m the longest surviving adolescent transplant in Ohio,” he said. “I was blessed with a great match.”

I’m a firm believer in living with purpose,” he said. “My purpose is taking care of myself so I can be with my family.”

Before he had a wife and child, he said his main purpose was to be an athlete and be competitive.

He said he focuses on maintaining optimal health by eating well and living an active life.

“You don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “You don’t have to run marathons. Just walk a couple of miles each day. It’s something. It’s better than doing nothing.”

Zinn said he still takes medication every morning and every evening.

“I’ve done it thousands of times,” he said. “I’m fortunate that my body’s OK with this.”

He has never met James’ family. He wrote letters for a few months in the early days, but didn’t receive a reply. He tried again at the 15-year mark, but without success.

He said that was their choice.

And his choice has been to become active in the lives of other donor families and people who receive organs.

“When I meet a donor family, it’s like they’re my own,” he said. “That’s when it sinks in. That’s when I realize it’s a purpose.”

Zinn began volunteering in northwest Ohio through Life Connection, Toledo, while he was in high school, and he continued volunteering for Lifeline of Ohio, Columbus, when he moved to Ohio State.

He does many talks for organizations.

“Never hesitate to ask,” he said. “As long as I’m available, I’ll say ‘yes,’ because it’s worth doing.

“If there’s one person in the audience, reads an article, sees a TV news segment, whatever, who says I’m going to change my mind and become a donor, it’s worth it,” he said.

Zinn, now 45, lives in the Columbus area with his wife and daughter.

He said he can’t imagine what his life might have been like if he had not received his heart transplant.

“If I didn’t have the transplant, I would be doing none of this,” he said. “I wouldn’t have seen the world the way I have. I wouldn’t have the perspective I have.

“My experience going through this has helped me really appreciate everything,” he said. “We all get lost in the day-to-day. We can’t see the forest because of the trees in front of us.”

Although he wouldn’t wish illness on anyone, he understands how his serious illness changed his life. And he encourages everyone to live life to its fullest.

“I’ve always been an optimistic realist,” he said. “The scientist in me says there are realities and boundaries, forces that control the world around us.”

But he said it’s important that each person have dreams, goals and purpose to his or her life.

“And you just might surprise yourself,” he said.

Among his goals is to see his grandchildren someday.

“I wanted to have a family, but I didn’t get married until I was 40,” he said. “I didn’t find the right girl until then.”

He and his wife, Marie (Coleman) met in 2012 when she was teaching at Hopewell-Loudon.

“We wouldn’t have met and married,” he said. “We wouldn’t have Sylvia. I wouldn’t have been able to go to college, or start running in these U.S. and world transplant games.”

Their 3-year-old daughter is named in honor of James — Sylvia Rose James Zinn.

“She’s here because of James,” he said.

“I want to be around to see my grandchildren,” he said. “That’s why I work out. That’s why I run and try to do the right things.

“That’s why we tell our stories,” Zinn said. “It’s because of James that I’m living a life.”