Tonya’s mother, Sue, knew something was wrong with her baby. She drove to Columbus Children’s Hospital, and doctors took one look at Tonya and said she was a very sick little girl. They told Sue that if she hadn’t brought Tonya to the hospital that day, she probably wouldn’t have made it through the weekend. Nine-month-old Tonya was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Tonya’s cystic fibrosis caused her to be a shy kid who knew she was “different.” She hardly ever smiled because her medication made her teeth discolored, and she didn’t want other kids to make fun of her.
“I was afraid for people to know what was wrong with me for fear that they would treat me differently,” Tonya said. “I was sick and no one else was. They were doing all these things, and I couldn’t.”
Every year, Tonya had about four two-week stays at Columbus Children’s Hospital. Trying to make the best out of the situation, Tonya referred to the hospital as “the club,” and she would bring fun clothes and a radio every trip.
Tonya was determined to live her life. She graduated from Bellevue High School and then from The Ohio State University, earning a degree in human ecology with a concentration in dietetics. She worked as a clinical nutrition manager at the Fulton County Health Center. She fell in love with her husband, Mario, and they had a baby, Eric, in 2001. (They named their son Eric after Tonya’s brother, who passed away from cystic fibrosis.)
Getting through the work day was a struggle. Some mornings, Tonya physically couldn’t get out of bed. If she would muster the strength to get to work, she fought her body’s urge to fall asleep. She knew it was bad, but she “didn’t want to come to terms with it,” Tonya said.
Tonya had frequent doctor’s appointments, and after one of her routine visits in September 2003, the doctor made her call her boss and say she couldn’t return to work because she was too sick. On December 18, 2003, she was put on the waiting list for a double lung transplant. Doctors said she’d probably have to wait two years because her petite build would mean she would have to receive a child’s lungs.
Tonya couldn’t imagine two more years of wearing oxygen 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of fighting her exhaustion to stay awake in church. Of working up the energy to take a shower and battling the urge to sleep afterward. Of not being active with her 2-year-old son. Of reading countless stories online about people who died waiting for transplants. Of not being able to sleep at night because she was afraid she wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Of trying to live on 19% lung function.
It was a normal Tuesday morning. Patient little Eric sat in bed with Tonya playing and looking at books until she had the energy to start her day. Around 10 a.m., Tonya was making eggs for Eric, and the phone rang. “The call” came five months and one week after doctors told Tonya she would have to wait two years for her transplant.
It was time. Nervous and excited, Tonya and her family drove to the Cleveland Clinic. On May 25, 2004, Tonya received a life-saving double lung transplant.
“I don’t think I realized how sick I really was until I took my first breath after my transplant. It was an amazing feeling to be able to breathe,” Tonya said.
Tonya returned home with energy she had never experienced in her 31 years. She could play with her son without fear that he would take off running and she couldn’t catch him. She cooked because she wanted to, not because she had to. She held her breath much longer than the two measly seconds she could before her transplant. And she laughed at the air compressor – without coughing – as she blew up a whole inflatable pool by herself.
One year and two months after her transplant, Tonya’s donor family drove from Wisconsin to Tiffin, Ohio, to meet her. Her donor was a 10-year-old boy named Adam. Seeing Adam’s parents, Steve and Lori, for the first time was something Tonya will never forget.
“It was such a good, emotional meeting,” Tonya said. “Eric was 3, and Steve took to him immediately. He was playing with him and they went swimming together. I think it was a little bit of healing because they saw that receiving Adam’s lungs meant I could raise my own child.”
“I’m honoring Adam by taking care of the lungs I’ve been given. I received this gift, and I feel compelled to share it with everybody.”
Since then, Tonya, now 42, has attended many gatherings with her donor family, including Steve and Lori’s daughter, April’s, wedding. There, April looked at Tonya and then said to her mom, “Adam really is here.”
Lori and Tonya have attended the Donate Life Transplant Games of America, an Olympic-style competition for transplant recipients, together since 2010. Tonya has competed in the Games in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, earning nine total medals, and she serves as Team Ohio’s co-captain.
Tonya has been married to the love of her life for 13 years, and her little boy has grown into a seventh grade football player. She works full time at the Fulton County Health Center. And she is a tireless promoter of the importance of organ, eye and tissue donation.
“Donation is one of the best legacies you can leave when you’re gone. It’s something you would be remembered for because you’re giving someone else a chance to live,” Tonya said. “People might forget you were a business owner or you accomplished a lot or if you were nice or mean, but they will never forget that you donated.”
Tonya is grateful to everyone who has given the gift of life through donation, especially her little hero, Adam.
“We have a saying – ‘Live like your donor is watching,’” Tonya said.
And she does. Every single day.