Overcoming Hurdles: New Heart, New Life for Athlete, Valedictorian
Eighteen years ago this past September, Ryan Zinn received a new heart. Since that time, he has been valedictorian at his high school, graduated with two engineering degrees from Ohio State, reinvented his career after the dotcom crash in the early 2000s, and - oh yeah - won a few gold medals along the way.
The medical problems for the now 33-year-old Columbus, Ohio, resident began in 1987; he had just started high school in Tiffin, a small community in northwestern Ohio.
"High school freshmen rarely stop to think about their health - until their health stops them," he says. A football, basketball and track athlete, the normally healthy 14-year-old suddenly started showing signs of extreme fatigue.
Ryan's symptoms progressed; by the day after Christmas, he was hospitalized with heart palpitations.
"That's when I began the great hospital tour of 1988," he jokes. Ryan traveled back and forth for seven weeks from his home hospital to a hospital in Toledo, finally ending up at Cleveland Clinic, where he was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, an unknown viral infection that caused his heart to enlarge. He was given two options: medications or a heart transplant.
"At that time, transplants were not as common as they are today, especially for kids," he recalls. "And we didn't have the Internet to search for information." So he chose medication over the heart transplant.
Failing Organs Prompt New Action
But over the next nine months, his heart continued to worsen, and his liver began to fail because of the medication cocktail. He started his sophomore year of high school at home with a tutor. The final straw, Ryan recalls, is when he suffered a stroke while doing his homework.
"The doctors gave me the news: I only had six months to live," he says. "At that point, my family and I fully committed to the idea of a heart transplant."
Ryan was put on the heart transplant waiting list in September, 1988. After only 17 days on the list, Ryan received the call from Cleveland Clinic that a heart was available. On Sept. 26, 1988, doctors successfully transplanted Ryan's new heart.
Baby Steps and Giant Leaps
Ryan awoke the third day after his heart transplant surgery and started learning how to walk again (his muscles had atrophied). He stayed in the hospital 12 days.
On the 13th day after his heart transplant, a determined Ryan was back in school. Six months after his transplant, he ran his first track meet.
"I worked on building myself back up," Ryan says. It was slow going at times, but by the end of high school, he was part of the team that broke a track and field relay record. A week later, he gave the valedictorian speech at his high school.
"I had overcome the physical and mental challenges of my illness," he says, "and that was one of my proudest moments."
Ryan graduated from The Ohio State University with both a bachelor and master degree in engineering. After the dotcom crash, he used his experience in the industry to become a senior technology licensing associate back at Ohio State, where he works to cultivate and patent engineering inventions, which he licenses to companies for royalties.
Transplant Games Athlete
Today, Ryan still competes - at the U.S. and World Transplant Games held all over the world.
From his first Transplant Games in 1992 to winning the Outstanding Male Athlete award in 1998 through the most recent where he received the Wendy Marx Award for Organ & Tissue Donation Awareness, Ryan has competed all across the United States and the world - traveling to Canada, England, Australia, Japan, France and next year to Thailand.
The Games help Ryan feel normal again, he says, and "by staying active, my chances of remaining healthy are far higher than if I lived a sedentary life."
But to him, the Games are even more than that.
"I've found a second family of people who understand what I went through, what I am experiencing now, and what may be ahead," he explains.
Sharing Positive Attitude
Throughout his ordeal, Ryan's family encouraged him to speak to others about his experience. That willingness to share has never left him.
"Whether it's to the Cub Scouts, senior social groups, or anything in between, I share my story," Ryan says. "I hope to inspire, educate and impact people on the importance of transplantation and organ donation.
"I'm living a second life, and it's all because of my organ donor's family."
To others who may be facing a similar situation, he simply says, "Attitude is everything. If you give up, it's over."
And he certainly has never given up.