It started out as a typical stump speech before a small group of Dearborn Heights Democrats last week.
"I'm a Democrat running for governor because I, like everyone in this room, know that we can do better," said Bill Cobbs, 64, a retired businessman from Farmington Hills.
Like thousands of political pitches from thousands of candidates, he ran through his upbringing in Detroit, his family life and his ideas on everything from environmental concerns, taxes and revenue sharing to Michigan cities.
But then something extraordinary happened.
Sharon Korhonen walked into the room at the Canfield Community Center in Dearborn Heights and Cobbs abruptly stopped speaking and took a deep breath.
"I want to introduce the second most important lady in my life who just walked into the room. Sharon is responsible for me standing here and talking to you today. In 2011, she gave me the greatest gift that I ever had in my life. She gave me life. Her son, Ronnie, I carry his heart," Cobbs said, tapping his chest. "If it wasn’t for that, I’d be pushing up daisies."
So a political meeting featuring a man hoping to become Michigan's next governor became a story of survival, generosity and a young man who helped save 17 people.
Son had inoperable brain tumor
Ronnie Korhonen was a big bear of a guy, 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds — a football player, usually a lineman, in the Mustang league as a kid at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn and at Adrian College. His mother said he loved to laugh and play jokes on people and was a "happy young man."
But one day in May 2011, at the age of 32, he came home from work as a deputy with the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, working at the county jail, complaining of a headache that just wouldn't go away.
"He never got sick and had never been to the hospital other than getting his knee scoped once," Sharon Korhonen said. "But this time, his eyes started getting glassy and it all happened within a matter of weeks."
Korhonen took Ronnie to the emergency room, where they found he had an inoperable brain tumor. She still doesn't know what caused it, but within two weeks, he was gone.
Donating Ronnie's organs was never a question for Korhonen. A friend's daughter needed a kidney and both Ronnie and her other son Alex had already started going through testing to see whether they would be a match.
"The boys didn’t hesitate," Korhonen said. "They wanted to step up to the plate and Ronnie was already in the process when all this happened."
So Ronnie's lungs went to two different people, his eyes gave another person sight, his kidneys went to two people.
"And I heard they needed long and short bones too," she said. "I just donated whatever they needed to give someone else a chance."
And Ronnie's heart went to Bill Cobbs.
Living with a death sentence
Nationally, 116,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, including 3,225 people in Michigan as of April 1, according to Gift of Life Michigan. That includes 151 Michiganders waiting for a heart.
In 2017, 309 Michigan donors contributed to 876 organ transplants and 4.7 million Michigan adults were signed up to be organ donors.
For Cobbs, who was diagnosed in 2001 with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body, medications kept him functioning until 2010 when he developed a virus that left him weak, unable to climb stairs and back at the hospital.
"When you get cardiomyopathy, it's a death sentence unless you're fortunate enough to get a heart transplant," Cobbs said. "For a long time, I did OK, then I took a precipitous turn."
His cardiologist, Dr. John Nicklas with Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan, said Cobbs lived and continued to work with the heart disease "until he was in end stage heart failure."
So he got a Left Ventricular Assist Device or LVAD, a mechanical device implanted under the skin to help the heart pump, while he waited for a heart transplant. He also got an Internal Cardio Defibrillator, which acts as both a pacemaker to monitor and stimulate the heart to beat or gives it a shock to get it beating again if it stops.
"I was at John Hopkins (Hospital) when the first devices were being tested," Nicklas said. "One of the patients, I remember, said it felt like she was being kicked by a mule. (Cobbs) was certainly aware of his shocks when they happened."
So while he waited for an available heart, Cobbs decided to retire from his job heading up a Danish software company and live whatever life he had left. His family decided they were going to celebrate his father's 99th birthday early that May day in 2011, just in case either one of them didn't make the actual birthday date.
"The day of the party came and went and by 8:30 most of the guests had left. I was exhausted, so I got into bed with all my clothes on and at 2 a.m., the phone rang, and it was the U-M calling to say they had a heart," Cobbs recalled. "I’m in shock and I pick up the phone and call my dad to tell him we’re getting ready to leave for Ann Arbor, and I could hear him weeping in the background.
" 'I got my birthday wish,' my dad said. And that lifted all the fear and concern off my shoulders."
Meeting his donor's family
Seven days after the successful transplant, Cobbs was itching to show his gratitude to the person who had given him a second shot at life. So he wrote a letter, gave it to the Gift of Life organization, which forwarded it to Korhonen.
"I wrote a letter the same week because it was that emotional for me," Cobbs said. "But a year went by and I didn’t hear anything."
Korhonen wasn't quite emotionally ready for a meeting.
"If you want to talk to them, you have to sign a release form and I just wasn’t ready, but after about 18 months, I decided it was time," she said. "I took my other son, sister and brother-in-law and we met him. And we’ve been friends ever since."
After that first meeting, Korhonen decided that she wanted Cobbs to meet the rest of Ronnie's family and friends at an annual barbecue she hosts every September to honor her son's memory on his birthday.
"There were a ton of people there and everybody wanted to come and listen to my heart," Cobbs said, noting that no one had a stethoscope. "They would just put their head to my chest and I knew that my family had just expanded significantly. Since then, Sharon has been a part of my life. She calls me consistently to make sure I’m OK and that nothing is going wrong."
Korhonen isn't sure whether Cobbs has picked up any of Ronnie's persona because she didn't know him before the transplant, but she knows that he laughs a lot, just like her son.
"I lost something precious, but if he is providing life for somebody else, I'm happy," Korhonen said. "Ronnie enjoyed life, he loved life and he's making Mr. Cobbs happy."
For Cobbs, he feels Ronnie's presence every day.
"When you get an organ transplant, you get a part of the person you got it from. I definitely became a more compassionate person. It changed the way I looked at the world," he said. "I feel a very strong connection to Ronnie and the family, period. I can’t begin to tell you the difference that it made in my life. I got to see kids graduate from college. I got to meet my first grandchild. I’m eternally grateful to Sharon and her family."
A chance to share life experiences
And for a political novice who is a long shot in the governor's race, he got a new purpose in life. The transplant was a principal motivation for his decision to seek elective office.
"When I first decided I was going to run for governor, people kept saying, 'Why are doing that, you’re crazy.' It’s hard for me to explain, but when you’ve been given something that most people never get, the opportunity to share your life and your experiences really means something. And if you don’t do that, shame on you.
"When Ronnie passed, he was only 32 years old. And for me to not be trying to make sure that his sacrifice meant something would be such a terrible waste."
He got the all clear from Dr. Nicklas, who said that once Cobbs survived the first year without rejecting the heart, his chances for long-term survival get better with each passing year and his prognosis is good enough to run and serve as governor, should he win.
"He's been lucky. He's gone through a lot and done very well," he said.
So on a brisk April evening, Korhonen came to watch Cobbs sell his gubernatorial campaign to her neighbors in Dearborn Heights.
"I'm kind of excited that I know someone who is running," she said. "If he wins, I guess I'll have to make an appointment to see him. But if that's what he wants, I'm happy for him. I like what he stands for and I'll vote for him."
Contact Kathleen Gray: 313-223-4430, [email protected] or on Twitter @michpoligal.
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