National Donate Life Month has a special place in Mike Blake’s heart. The 69-year-old transplant recipient has lived nearly 30 years with a heart donated to him.
“It meant everything to me,” Blake said. “My kids still have a father. My wife still has a husband. My sisters still have a brother."
April, designated as National Donate Life Month, highlights the need for donors. More than 100,000 people are waiting for a lifesaving transplant, and more than 20 people die daily because they didn’t receive the organ they need in time, according to Donate Life America, a nonprofit organization that highlights the need for donated organs, eyes and tissues.
The transplant was the last hope for Blake, who was born with a congenital heart defect, and during the next 42 years had three pacemakers installed in his chest and an open-heart surgery to repair 10 holes in the organ.
Blake’s heart was operating at 20% when he was placed on a transplant list in 1994. He moved with his family from Thompson, N.D., to Rochester, Minn., in July that year to wait for a donor. During the wait, Blake’s heart continued to deteriorate.
“The doctors told my wife that, scientifically, I shouldn’t be alive,” Blake said.
On Day 61 of his Mayo Clinic stay, and with his heart working at 5%, Blake received the heart of a young, rural Minnesota man who died in a motorcycle accident. Twenty-six years later, Blake remains grateful for the gift.
“Every day, I wake up thinking, ‘This is amazing. I can’t believe I’m still here,’” he said
The additional 26½ years the heart transplant has added to Blake’s life has given him time to spend with his family, which, besides his wife, includes an adult son and daughter and two grandchildren.
Though officially retired from full-time teaching at UND, Blake unofficially works nearly full-time, giving 20 percussion lessons a week to students ages 5 to 50. Since COVID-19, Blake has taught lessons over Zoom, but looks forward to returning to in-person instruction at Popplers Music in Grand Forks when it’s safe.
Blake also walks for 30 minutes six days a week at Grand Cities Mall.
“I feel really good. I could probably walk for an hour at this pace,” Blake said during a telephone interview as he was walking.
The impact that the heart transplant has had on his own life prompted Blake to become a donor, he said. Within a few years of receiving the transplant, during a driver’s license renewal, he indicated on the card that he wants to be a donor.
“It’s so important. I have friends, right now, who are waiting for kidneys,” Blake said.
Receiving a kidney from her husband, Keith, saved Becky Ronkowski’s life, the Grand Forks woman said. Ronkowski was seriously ill and doing peritoneal dialysis when her husband donated a kidney for her 2000 transplant. She had been on a donor list waiting for a match, when she learned that non-compatible transplants were being performed at Mayo Clinic.
“We went to Mayo on Valentine’s Day of 2000 and found that Keith, in fact, could be a donor for me,” Ronkowski said. The next month she had a transplant.
Ronkowski, like Blake, is a champion for organ donation.
“To me, it was the ultimate gift of love. It was the ultimate act of someone giving something to you that you can’t put a value on,” she said. “We will be advocates for organ donations for the rest of our lives because we know what it can do for families.”