Transplant gives Passon a new lease on life

At 33 years of age, Spring Lake's Ronda Passon got a new lease on life thanks to organ donation.
Nate Thompson
Aug 1, 2012

Passon was born with cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, digestive tract and other areas of the body. The condition can be life-threatening and is one of the most chronic lung diseases in children and young adults.

Doctors told her parents that their daughter likely wouldn’t live to the age of 5. She defied the odds, but by the time she reached adulthood, her lungs had deteriorated.

“It causes your lungs to feel stiff,” said Passon, now 45. “It also affects the pancreas. For me, I had trouble digesting food and absorbing nutrients from the food.”

Passon said the condition left with her with little or no energy most days, which forced her to quit her job as a respiratory therapist at Spectrum Hospital’s Butterworth campus in Grand Rapids.

Discouraged by the numerous treatments to her lungs that were getting her nowhere, doctors determined that the next step for Passon was a double lung transplant. The big issue, however, was the wait for the lungs, which tested her patience for 3 1⁄2 years. Her prayers were finally answered when she received a midnight phone call, notifying her that a donor had been found.

“At that time, the organ donor list was based on time, like first come, first serve,” Passon said. “Now, they base it on need. They give you a score based on how life-threatening the need is for the donation.”

Passon had the transplant performed in Chicago. She knows little about the organ donor, other than that it was a 13-year-old girl.

To this day, she wishes she could meet the girl’s family, wherever they may be.

“I’m forever grateful of my donor family,” she said. “Organ donation really is mind boggling. In one instance, it’s the worst-case scenario, because it means someone lost their life to share their body for others. But the other part of it, what I experienced, is the best case that could have ever happened. It’s really like a ying and yang together.”

Passon saw many examples of the miracles that organ donation can serve this week, when she participated for the first time in the Transplant Games of American, hosted by the West Michigan Sports Commission in Allendale and Grand Rapids. The Olympic-style sports festival featured more than 1,100 athletes from 48 states who have been the recipients of organ transplants. The four-day event was expected to generate as much as $2 million into the local economy.

The Games, which were presented by Spectrum Health, featured 12 different events, including cycling, which Passon entered. The opening ceremonies took place on Saturday evening at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids in front of an estimated thousand athletes, 1,500 donor families and more than 700 volunteers. The Games concluded Tuesday with the last medals awarded and the closing ceremonies at DeVos Performance Hall.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” Passon said. “I’ve gotten a chance to meet with a lot of donor families and the athletes. Everyone has a different story to share.”

Passon was the only athlete from the Tri-Cities to compete. Grand Haven’s Jerry Missel, who received a kidney transplant eight years ago, was scheduled to participate, but a collarbone injury kept him on the sidelines.

Passon said the 20K bike ride in the heat got the best of her on Sunday, as she was unable to complete the course on roads near Grand Valley State University’s campus.

“There were some pretty hard-core cyclists out there,” she said. “I did train for it, but probably not enough. I’m just a recreational cyclist. This was the first race I’ve ever done.”

Despite failing to cross the finish line, Passon said she would definitely enter the Games again, which will return to the United States in two years. She also felt a sense of pride being involved with such an event, considering it provided an overlying message of the importance of organ donation.

Since she received her new lungs, Passon leads a normal, active life and has returned to work as a respiratory therapist at Butterworth, helping patients deal with the same issues that once plagued her.

“Being with so many donor families really was a neat experience because I’ve never met mine,” Passon said. “It’s really a blessing because it provides that sense of hope for everyone that there’s a second chance at life.”

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