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Heart Transplant Miracles Meet for Support

When Mike and Kathy Wigal visited Miller Haus Bed and Breakfast last year, they fell in love with the place. They knew they had to come back, and when they did, they brought a very special group of people with them, a group of people with a new lease on life.

Wigal, from West Salem, and about a dozen others are part of the OSU Ross Support Group at Ohio State’s Ross Heart Hospital. These folks, mostly from the Columbus area, have helped each other through one of the biggest challenges a person could ever face. Most have not only lived through the overwhelming experience of heart failure, but the majority have been given a new lease on life through heart transplant. 

Each Wednesday at 3 p.m., the group meets at the Columbus hospital to share their joys and concerns with each other through a common bond that celebrates life. Over the weekend of Feb. 17, members of the weekly support group met in Ohio’s Amish Country to further connect, take in the beauty of the area, and enjoy the hospitality of Lee Ann Miller and the staff at Miller Haus Bed and Breakfast near Walnut Creek. 

“This weekend probably embodies what we hope our bed and breakfast is,” said Miller, “a place for people to experience relationships and the love of God, to help them feel they’ve been refreshed and restored, to make an eternal significance in someone’s life. These people have had death whisper in their ear, so they receive what we are giving them very differently.” 

As they gathered for breakfast on Saturday morning, each person told their story of how they became part of the support group. Every story is so unique it deserves an entire book of its own. 

Jim Hines, of Hilliard, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2008 and told there was nothing the doctors could do. At 68, he was too old for a heart transplant, and he needed to go home and prepare to die. His family had begun making funeral arrangements when his wife, Rita, ran into a nurse she knew at the grocery store while buying salt for the driveway. The nurse got them in touch with a cardiologist who put him on the heart transplant list, and on Good Friday, 2011, Hines was given a new heart. 

David Stephenson, of Rockford, was planning to quit his job designing ambulances to work full-time with his wife, Charlene, at their new commercial hydroponic lettuce business when he woke with what he thought was the flu. Stephenson suffered a massive heart attack. Seventeen months later, he had a new heart, and the lettuce business is booming.

Stephanie Blackwell, of South Point, received a new heart in 2011. She said the group has helped her deal with the unique emotional turmoil that comes from knowing you’re alive because someone else is not. The support group, for her, is like a family. 

Anthony Hines and his wife, Terry, were active people who loved traveling together until his heart problems slowed him down. When he found that he needed a new heart, his mother gave him a gold ceramic angel to keep in his room. Since his transplant, Anthony visits patients regularly and has given away more than 100 angels to those facing transplants or other heart issues.

Mark Hennessy, of Zanesville, had an ultrasound because of a bout with kidney stones when doctors discovered his lungs were filled with fluid. After a heart catheterization, they found five major blockages. Since receiving a new heart in 2008, he’s a source of hope for others through the support group and Men at Heart, a team who visits those dealing with the uncertainty of heart issues. 

The Ross Support Group isn’t just for transplant patients. Paul Sparks, of Columbus, received a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) after battling what he thought was sinus drainage but turned out to be congestive heart failure. He said the LVAD has given him a new lease on life. He and his wife, Phyllis, who has become close with other heart patients’ spouses, are devoted to the weekly meetings. Zach Little, of Grove City, also has an LVAD, but his is a bridge to a heart transplant. He and the group are trusting that his new heart will arrive any day. 

And then, there’s Melissa Justice, who, at 31, had classic heart failure symptoms, swelling feet, heaviness in her chest, but didn’t recognize them until she and her husband, Ray, were on a cruise to celebrate her job promotion and she could no longer walk a few steps without shortness of breath. But while Justice was on the operating table to receive her new heart, the surgeon discovered, before even making the first cut, that her heart had healed itself. The group calls Justice their miracle baby. 

Jim Lunder, of Mentor-on-the-Lake, received his heart transplant at the Cleveland Clinic and met the Columbus group at the Miller Haus for the first time. Lunder, an ambassador for Lifebanc, a nonprofit organ and tissue recovery organization for Northeast Ohio, received the heart of a 21-year-old young man from Missouri. He became emotional telling of the moment he met the young man’s father, who pressed his head against Lunder’s chest and listened to his son’s beating heart. 

Lunder said there are more than 110,000 men, women and children nationwide waiting for life-saving organ transplants. He said many people fear organ donorship because they don’t believe it works, but he insists he’s living proof. He urges people to become organ donors. Just one donor can save eight lives. 

Each of these people believes God has given them a second chance at life, and they are living it to the fullest, volunteering, and paying forward the gifts they’ve been given. 

Wigal, who received a new heart in 2009, said anyone needing support for heart issues is welcome to join the group. 

“Whatever the group wants to talk about, whatever they need,” Wigal said, “we’re there for each other.”

For more information on donorship, contact LifeBanc at 888-558-LIFE or visit http://www.lifebanc.org. For more information on the OSU Ross Support Group or to talk to someone about the challenges of heart issues, contact Mike Wigal at 330-317-9648.

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