By Dawn Hatfield
WAYNE LAKES — Ronni Whitehead received the gift of a lifetime this holiday season; she got the new lungs she’d been hoping and waiting more than four long years to receive. On Dec. 7, 2022, Whitehead underwent surgery at Cleveland Clinic, where the adult pulmonary program is ranked Best in Ohio and #4 in the Nation by US News & World Report.
Whitehead took time on Jan. 10 to speak with The Daily Advocate. Whitehead explained, “I was actually here at the Cleveland Clinic for my regular appointments on Dec. 6 when I got a call saying they had lungs for me. Then, I was admitted and got transplanted the next day on Dec. 7. My recovery is going better than expected! I was in the ICU for five days and then was sent down to the transplant floor where I received physical and occupational therapy. While I was on that floor, I was getting into my new routine of all the new medications I will be on, learning how to breathe and walk without a walker, and getting my chest tubes removed. I was on that floor for 11 days, and then I was able to leave the hospital to our temporary home here in Cleveland at the Transplant House. I was actually discharged with two remaining tubes, and I just got my last one pulled yesterday, which has helped my pain significantly! Overall, the doctors [including Jason Turowski, MD, Associate Director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program and Medical Director of the Cleveland Clinic Pulmonary Transplant Fellowship] are extremely impressed with how it’s only been a little over a month, and I’m doing so well. We’re still uncertain when I will be able to come home, but we’re hoping maybe in a couple weeks.”
The receipt of new lungs in December was an even bigger blessing as Whitehead’s mother, Rhonda Kolling, explained this was their second transplant attempt. Unfortunately, a fierce winter storm crushed their plans in November, when a young donor had been located but the medical helicopter couldn’t safely land in Cleveland. Kolling said the family was “devastated,” and with only 12 to 13 percent lung function, Whitehead was coming dangerously close to being intubated if another match weren’t located quickly.
With this blessing, of course, come challenges. Kolling reported the family does not know about the donor, which is difficult and adds to the emotional recovery. Understanding a person’s life was lost to result in lungs being available to Whitehead is something Kolling said her daughter is grappling with.
Additionally, Whitehead’s 10-year-old son continues to attend Tri-Village schools while his parents are temporarily living in Cleveland. Kolling and her other two daughters are helping to look after Colin, which is an adjustment for everyone.
Whitehead’s husband, Matt, has taken a leave of absence to be by Ronni’s side in Cleveland as she “can’t be alone” at this stage of recovery.
While Whitehead was fortunate to have Medicaid coverage for the surgery, it does not pay for temporary housing on top of their bills at home. Even with an optimistic three-month stay in the Transplant House, the Whitehead family is looking at $3,000 or more for temporary housing alone.
Kolling described the Transplant House as a “wonderful place” in a beautiful old home that has been turned into apartments. The house is minutes from the hospital in case transplant patients need immediate treatment following surgery and is a great option as the Whiteheads’ Wayne Lakes home is nearly four hours from the clinic.
Previous fundraising has been greatly aided by a bake sale at Fram, where husband, Matt, worked in 2019; a benefit at Buffalo Wild Wings in September 2019, with half the money on orders going to Ronni’s cause; and a raffle by Western Ohio Therapy Associates in October 2019. The family has also held garage sales and hosted a GoFundMe page over the years. While the family sincerely appreciates the support, with a lifetime of medical treatments and accumulating recovery expenses, they find themselves still in need.
Ronni, the only one in her family with the genetic disease, was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) at only three months of age. Whitehead explained, “I had a bunch of acid reflux and problems, and mom took me to the hospital, and they found out it was Cystic Fibrosis.”
ClevelandClinic.org defines Cystic fibrosis as “a genetic disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in organs, including the lungs and the pancreas. In a healthy person, mucus that lines organs and body cavities, such as the lungs and the nose, is slippery and watery. In people with CF, thick mucus clogs cause symptoms in the lungs and pancreas.”
“When I was little, it was not as bad. When I got a little older, I was in the hospital two or three times a year, and, after I graduated, there were more frequent hospital stays. Now, it’s been every other month the last couple of years,” Whitehead said in an August 2019 article.
“I have two older sisters, but my parents didn’t know they carried the gene until I had it,” she said.
In addition to Dr. Turowski and the transplant team at Cleveland Clinic, Whitehead has also been a patient of Dr. Hari Polenakovik, MD, an infectious disease specialist in Dayton who is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Dayton Children’s Hospital, for years. Polenakovik also previously practiced at Wayne HealthCare in Greenville.
Ronni’s husband, Matt, explained on their 2019 GoFundMe page that “[my] being off of work [will] cripple our ability to pay necessary bills, such as our mortgage payment, and hinder my ability to focus on my wife’s well-being…We are asking for the Lord’s guidance and prayers as well as your support, and we will be so grateful for any contributions we may receive.”
Whitehead’s sister, Rene Buccella, is now organizing the fundraising on the couple’s behalf. Bucella writes on the family’s current GoFundMe site, “I’m raising funds to help my sister, Ronni Whitehead, to help cover costs of a lung transplant that are not covered by insurance. The money donated will go to help with the many trips she has to take to Cleveland Clinic, a four-hour drive from her home, as well as [temporary] housing. Thoughts and prayers for her and our family are also greatly appreciated.”
Even with the many challenges, Whitehead is incredibly appreciative of her new lungs. She will celebrate her 34th birthday on Jan. 27 with the incredible gift of new possibilities in life.
Whitehead said, “I’m looking forward to a new beginning: doing things I haven’t been able to do, such as taking a walk, running after our son, Colin, cooking, and cleaning; taking our dogs for a walk; just being able to breathe!”
To donate to Ronni Whitehead’s recovery, visit GoFundMe page, “Donate to help with lung transplant costs,” at https://gofund.me/45baea8f. As of Jan. 10, the page had 39 donors and had raised $2,045 of the $5,000-plus goal.
Reach Daily Advocate Reporter Dawn Hatfield at [email protected] or 937-569-0066.