Double-lung transplant recipient celebrates life after crash
Detroit — It began as a typical early-morning motorcycle ride to work.
Ronald Wilmoth wanted to take advantage of the crisp autumn weather. So the 50-year-old rode his Victory motorcycle on Oct. 5, 2016, westbound on Interstate 94 from his Chesterfield Township home toward his job as an IT network engineer at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn.
That's when life as he knew it forever changed.
At the Interstate 75 interchange in Detroit, a wayward truck tire flew over the median wall crashing into Wilmoth's back. His motorcycle smashed into the wall.
Miraculously, he survived. And yes, he was wearing a helmet.
But the impact was so horrific, he required a double-lung transplant 55 days later on Nov. 29, 2016. The operation was performed by Dr. Hassan Nemeh, a Henry Ford Hospital transplant surgeon.
In the blistering heat on Friday, a year and seven months after the transplant was performed at Henry Ford’s Transplant Institute, Wilmoth rode up in front of the Clara Ford Pavilion on a shiny-blue Tri Glide Harley-Davidson three-wheeled motorcycle, with his wife, Rebecca, 49, on the back seat.
"We need to live our lives now, in the present, because you never know what's going to happen," he said.
It’s the vehicle they used to get around during a two-month cross-country bucket list trip to celebrate being alive.
They were met on the curb by a round of applause by doctors and nurses who were part of his care team, including Dr. Marwan Abouljoud, director of the Henry Ford Transplant Institute. Nemeh, who performed the surgery, was unable to attend the welcome home event because he was in surgery.
Aboulijoud extended his hand to shake Wilmoth's and exclaimed, "Everybody is so excited to see you."
He was surrounded by nurses and others who were part of the care team.
"Thank you, so much," said Wilmoth from his motorcycle, wearing mirrored sunglasses. "It makes me appreciate life so much more now."
Their cross-country trip, which began May 3 and ended Wednesday, included the southern United States to the Grand Canyon, out to the Pacific Ocean, up the coast of California, across the Rocky Mountains and back across the upper United States, with a stop at Mount Rushmore.
The celebration also marked part of the ongoing 2018 celebration of 50 years of transplants at the Henry Ford Transplant Institute, where more than 6,150 organ transplants and 1,250 bone marrow stem cell transplants have been performed.
Aboulijoud then chatted with Wilmoth asking, "How many states did you visit?"
"Sixteen," Wilmoth replied.
Aboulijoud asked: "What was the most exciting part of your trip?"
Wilmoth responded: "Probably seeing Yellowstone."
Wilmoth then expressed heartfelt emotions.
"Everyone here has been like a second family to me," he said.
Aboulijoud was equally expressive.
"For you to be willing to fight and go through a transplant, and on top of that to get back on a motorcycle and tour the country, takes a lot of courage," he said.
Both men then thanked the donor, whose family Wilmoth said he would like to meet, but does not know.
"Thank you to the donor family that made this all possible," he said. "I can't thank them enough. They gave me a second chance at life."
Wilmoth said the after-effects of the surgery and accident remain.
"I tire more easily, and I'm still dealing with the pain in my leg," he said. "And I have to stay away from sick people because of my immune system."
He said he will return to the hospital for a checkup next month.
According to Michigan State Police, the spare tire that hit Wilmoth came from a truck whose driver was likely unaware of the incident.
“There is no indication (the truck driver) knew the tire came off,” state police said at the time. The driver did not stop at the crash scene, according to state police.
Right after the accident, when he arrived at Henry Ford Hospital, Wilmoth said his leg had seven open fractures and a broken ankle. Following a second surgery, his lungs stopped working. He needed a lung transplant.
It was scheduled for Nov. 29, 2016. But first, there was something he needed to do. Get married. He did so that Nov. 18.
"We've known each other since we were kids, but we had reconnected on Facebook," Rebecca Wilmoth said. "I am just so proud of him."
To join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, visit www.giftoflifemichigan.org/go/hfhs.