Ronald Ruf and his wife adopted their daughter, Jessica Zimmer, when she was 2 months old. Little did they know that 36 years later, Zimmer would save her father’s life by being his donor for a living-donor kidney transplant.
Long before he was sick, Ruf, 71, was in great shape and very active. In 2004, he noticed something wasn’t right. After a trip to the hospital near his home in Erie, he was surprised to find out he was going into renal failure.
“I couldn’t breathe and I swelled up like the Michelin Man due to a stoppage,” Ruf said.
“I wasn’t passing urine, but the crazy thing was that it wasn’t a chronic disease; it was more of a mechanical problem.”
After a close call and two months on dialysis, Ruf overcame his illness and was healthy for nearly 14 years. But last Christmas, his health quickly declined again, and he was put back on dialysis.
This time, however, his doctors at UPMC recommended a kidney transplant.
For Zimmer, watching her dad go through the treatments without a donor was difficult.
“My parents are travelers; they’re go-getters,” Zimmer said. “In a way, being on dialysis made him a prisoner. It was heartbreaking.”
Zimmer said she felt called to try to become her dad’s donor. He was initially against it, mostly because Zimmer has two young children. Still, she wanted to try.
In June 2017, Ruf went to another transplant appointment and Zimmer tagged along. This is when she had her initial testing done to become a donor, and it’s also when her dad had a huge change of heart.
“Jessica doesn’t have the best attitude towards needles, so I decided that if she was a match, even though I wasn’t really comfortable, I was going to do it,” he said. “She endured all that fear for me, and for her, that was probably worse than anything.”
As far as the chances of being a match are concerned, the odds weren’t in Ruf and Zimmer’s favor since Zimmer isn’t his biological daughter.
After several rounds of testing, Zimmer finally got the call she was waiting for: She was a match.
“When she first told me, I was kind of stunned; just completely dumbfounded,” he said. “It all became too real for me at that point, but after I thought about it for a while, the more grateful I was. I knew having a living donor would give me a better chance.”
The father-daughter duo scheduled their surgery for Sept. 18, and it was a success.
“Every day I get to come to work and not only see miracles happen, but I get to see loved ones partake in the saving of their loved ones’ lives,” said Dr. Amit Tevar, surgical director of kidney and pancreas transplant at UPMC. “It’s remarkable, and no matter how many times you see it, it’s touching to the end.
As soon as she woke up from surgery, all Zimmer could think about was seeing her dad. That’s when she told her husband to start recording with his phone. Ruf described the moment they shared together as “heartwarming.”
“She waited and waited, hoping to see me,” he said. “I was still under [anesthesia] a little bit. When I started coming out of it, we both had big smiles on our faces. I was worried about her, and she was worried about me.”
“Everybody at UPMC has been wonderful,” Zimmer said. “I take my dad a lot to his appointments, and they all know us now. Everyone has just been so supportive and wonderful and cheering us on every step of the way.”
Today, after several months of healing, both Ruf and Zimmer are feeling great. While Zimmer is fully back to life as a mom and hairdresser, Ruf is still looking forward to his final check-up when he’ll get his catheter removed and will finally have his normal life back.
“Pretty soon, I’ll be cleared to drive again,” he said. “And once I’m cleared, my wife and I really like to cruise, so this gives us a chance to do that.”
Zimmer said it’s that second chance at health and happiness that made going through the transplant process worth it.
“This was all for my dad — I did it for him,” she said. “To see the light in his eyes and knowing he’s getting his life back, it’s the best gift.”
And as the recipient of that priceless gift, Ruf said he couldn’t be more grateful for his daughter.
“We don’t think of her as being adopted — she was ours from the day we brought her home,” he said. “We were already very close, but this entire process brought us even closer. She’s my only child, and I couldn’t love her any more. What a miracle.”