Transplant Recipient Celebrates 30 Years with Same Heart

Thirty years ago, Ryan Zinn’s goals were understandably short-term: Get back to school. Start running again. Lift weights. Be valedictorian of his high school class. He achieved them all.

Today, the 45-year-old Columbus resident tends to have more of an extended vision, like being there to enjoy the occasion when his now 3-year-old daughter, Sylvia, graduates from high school or gets married someday.

But as the oldest living individual to receive a heart transplant as an adolescent in the state of Ohio*, Ryan thinks a lot about how he can encourage others to give what he received on September 26, 1988. The gift of life.

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Cleveland Clinic patient Ryan Zinn and his daughter Sylvia. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)

“We all have an opportunity to impact the lives of others,” said Ryan. “And signing up to be an organ and tissue donor can be a tremendous way to do that. When I tell my story, I challenge people to consider what their legacy can be. Maybe they will be lucky enough to save someone’s life.”

RELATED: Sign-up to be an organ donor through Lifebanc

“Ryan is a wonderful example of why we do transplants,” said David O. Taylor, M.D.,  who has conducted annual checkups as Ryan’s cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic since 2004. “He has shown that when a heart transplant recipient has the right attitude and the right treatment, there really aren’t that many limits to what they can do.”

Last Saturday, Ryan and 70 friends and family members assembled in a Columbus restaurant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his heart transplant, which was performed at Cleveland Clinic Children’s by surgeon Robert Stewart, M.D.

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Ryan and his wife Marie. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)

But they also honored the memory of a person none of them have met – a young man named James who died in a Lorain, Ohio, after a car accident, but whose heart has enabled Ryan to live longer than he ever expected.

“We wanted to recognize the special nature of reaching this type of milestone, and to honor my donor as well,” said Ryan, who has never spent a night in a hospital since being discharged following his transplant. “It’s not lost on me that 30 years would not have happened if not for James.”

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Ryan Zinn honors his heart donor, a young man named James. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)

An athletic high school freshman, Ryan suffered bouts of weariness and eventually was diagnosed with a form of cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that causes it to swell and hampers its ability to pump blood. Ryan got weaker and weaker, and he and his parents faced two choices: Ryan could live as comfortably as possible for as long as possible, likely six months or less. Or, he could undergo a heart transplant.

RELATED: After 104-Day Hospitalization, Heart Transplant Recipient Celebrates 21st Birthday

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Ryan Zinn in 8th grade (left) and the first day of his sophomore year of school. (Photo courtesy: Ryan Zinn)

Ryan stated, “My parents and I said we’re not going to quit. Let’s get on the heart transplant waiting list.”

Among those in attendance Saturday was Richard Sterba, M.D., a now-retired Cleveland Clinic Children’s pediatric cardiologist who flew to Columbus from Florida for the event. Vacationing with her husband, but at the party in spirit, was Rita Newberg, a nurse clinician at the time, who helped treat Ryan.

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Dr. Richard Sterba, retired Cleveland Clinic physician, was Ryan’s cardiologist 30 years ago. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)

“The two of them were like family. They offered great support, great guidance and great medical attention,” noted Ryan. “They were the port in the middle of the storm, so many times, when I didn’t know what the future held.”

The day before Ryan graduated from high school, he was a member of the 4×100-meter relay team that broke his high school’s record time. He has remained athletically active ever since, competing – and winning — regularly in the Transplant Games of America and the World Transplant Games in a variety of track events, table tennis, basketball and badminton. In fact, it was through the games he met his wife, Marie.

RELATED: Man Walks 357 Miles From Ohio To White House 1 Year After Heart Transplant

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Cleveland Clinic patient Ryan Zinn regularly competes in the Transplant Games of America and the World Transplant Games. (Courtesy: Ryan Zinn)

And while his daughter Sylvia Rose James Zinn — her third name honoring Ryan’s donor – isn’t yet old enough to truly understand her father’s story, she is learning about James and his legacy in Ryan’s life.

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Ryan Zinn lives in the Columbus-area with his wife and daughter. (Courtesy: Ryan Zinn)

“When we pray every night when Sylvia goes to bed, we say a prayer thanking God for daddy’s donor, James. She knows daddy has a new heart because of James.”

*Heart transplants performed since 10/1/1987 for recipients aged 10-19 (adolescent) who have not been re-transplanted and who have not been reported to have died per Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network or verified from external sources.

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