NEW BETHLEHEM – Imagine being put on a transplant waitlist because you are in need of a new heart. Imagine being told after months on the list that a donor heart is available. Now imagine two years after a successful transplant, meeting your donor’s family.
This scenario was a real life series of events for one Fairmount City man.
The journey for Gordon Pence began in June 2016 with neck surgery to correct some pain and numbness. While everything with the surgery went well, Pence suffered a massive heart attack less than a week later.
“We had no idea that it had even happened,” said Pence’s daughter, Cherie Schultz, noting that the family believed her father’s symptoms were a result of the surgery. It wasn’t until her father started showing signs of confusion that they suspected something else was wrong. Pence was taken to Armstrong County Memorial Hospital and then flown to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. “They discovered that two thirds of his heart had been damaged. He had a 100 percent blockage and a blood clot in his heart.”
Due to the damage that had already been done, Schultz said, doctors said they would not be able to remove the blockage, and soon the family was looking at the possibility of a heart transplant.
On June 29, 2016, Pence received an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) to help his weak heart function until a donor heart was found, and he was officially placed on the transplant list that July.
“The LVAD served as a bridge to the transplant,” Schultz said. “We were told it could be 18 months before a donor could be found.”
Although he was able to keep an active lifestyle outside of the hospital for several months, elevated bloodwork in March 2017 indicated a potential problem with Pence’s LVAD and he was readmitted to Allegheny General Hospital.
“He was admitted on March 30 and told he would be there until he got a heart,” Schultz said, adding that although he was constantly monitored, her father passed the time in the hospital doing laps around his unit. “The nurses always joked that they were going to put him to work.”
On Saturday, April 15, the family was gathered at the hospital celebrating Easter. They returned home late Saturday night, only to receive a call from Pence a few hours later stating that a heart donor had been found.
“We could hardly believe it when he called,” said Pence’s wife, Tanza, explaining that the entire family had a rush of adrenaline as they readied themselves and quickly headed back to the hospital.
When they arrived, Pence was being prepped for surgery, and the whole family was able to wait with him until he was taken to the operating room on Easter morning, April 16, 2017. The family was told surgery would take between eight to 12 hours, but Pence was in the operating room just a little over five hours.
“When the doctor came out and told us everything was done, my initial reaction was fear because I thought it seemed way too soon,” Schultz said, noting, however that the doctor assured them everything went fine.
Following the hospital stay and some in-patient therapy at West Penn, Pence returned home on June 1, 2017.
“I’m as good as new now,” Pence said, explaining that it took him approximately a year to fully recover.
“It’s amazing what they can do,” Tanza Pence added, noting that her husband now walks two miles and bikes four miles each day. “It’s a true miracle how far medicine has come.”
The decision for Pence’s family to meet the donor family was very much a mutual one. In fact, before they were able to complete a letter to the donor’s family, the Pences received a letter from them. The letter from the donor’s family introduced their 22-year-old son, Jacob Ronk, whose heart Pence had received.
“Immediately after we got the letter from Jacob’s family, I started writing a letter to them that we could take to Dad’s one-year appointment,” Schultz said, adding that each member of her family wrote something in the letter explaining what their son’s gift to Pence meant to them. “We felt that they deserved to know where their son’s heart was.”
Since all correspondences had to be relayed through the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE), Schultz said that another year passed without any further contact from the donor’s family. As the two-year anniversary of Pence’s transplant approached, Schultz decided to reach out to CORE to see if there were any updates from the other family.
“I told them our story and explained that the donor’s family expressed to us that they were interested in meeting,” she said, noting that she was surprised to learn that the donor’s family had contacted CORE just weeks before to see if anyone had reached out. “It just seemed like it was meant to be.”
With the help of CORE, Pence and his family traveled to a family house at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W. Va. on July 13, where they met Ronk’s parents and young son, as well as his sisters, their spouses and children.
“We were feeling so many different emotions,” Tanza Pence said. “We knew it was going to be a bittersweet day.”
“I was so nervous,” Schultz said, adding that she thought about what she was going to say the whole trip down. She said she and her family were worried that seeing Pence would cause additional pain for the donor’s family. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to thank them enough.”
The nervousness was quickly washed away when the Pences entered the house and were greeted by Ronk’s father, who immediately embraced the Pences.
“All I could say was ‘thank you for Jacob’s heart,’” Tanza Pence said, noting that there were no words to describe how thankful her family was for their son’s gift. “I think it brought everything full circle. They made us feel better, and I think it helped with their healing process too.”
The families spent hours swapping stories and getting to know each other. In fact, during this time, the Pences even learned that Ronk not only saved Pence, but helped save the lives of three other people with his liver and kidneys.
“They couldn’t have been a more loving family,” Schultz said. “It seemed like home to us. We all seemed to mesh together.”
In addition to the stories, the Ronk family presented the Pences with a photo album filled with photos of their son and maple syrup from the family farm. They also gifted Pence a bell ornament engraved with the year of the transplant as a nod to Ronk’s favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
From the Pences, the Ronk family was gifted a custom made Build-A-Bear, which included a recording of Ronk’s heart beating inside of Pence’s chest.
“There were a lot of tears,” Tanza Pence said. The meeting was so meaningful, that already the two families are planning to meet again. “We think of them as extended family.”
During the meeting, and even now, both families acknowledged that it was Ronk’s decision to donate his organs that brought them all together. Both the Ronks and the Pences have now made it their mission to spread the word of Ronk’s legacy and to advocate the importance of organ donation.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about organ donation,” Schultz and Tanza Pence said. “We hope by sharing our stories that others will become better informed about organ donation and will consider donating.”
For more information on organ donation, visit www.core.org.