EAST SPRINGFIELD - Forget Valentine's Day on Tuesday.
Bobby and Cheryl Benner of the East Springfield area are putting their "heart" into celebrating Thursday instead - not necessarily anything Cupid-related but a new lease on life they continue to enjoy and appreciate.
On Thursday, it's Bobby's "10th birthday," as the couple calls it, even though Bobby actually turns 60 later this year.
HAPPY?HEART?DAY — Thursday will mark the 10-year anniversary for Bobby Benner's heart transplant, an occasion he and his wife, Cheryl, will celebrate as a 10th birthday for the East Springfield area man. A local fundraiser held in 2002 to benefit the family with medical expenses was a display of generosity and support that the Benners still marvel over.
-- Janice R. Kiaski
But Feb. 16 makes it an official decade ago when Bobby had a heart transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
It is occasion for celebration as well as reflection, which includes an ongoing sense of gratitude for the support and generosity shown by the Valley when a fundraiser dinner was organized to help with medical expenses.
"The fundraiser was wonderful - 1,100 people came," Cheryl said.
Bobby never made it to the event held at the Countryside outside Richmond. He was hospitalized, critically ill, his deteriorating condition elevating him unexpectedly to the top of the transplant list.
Within a week of the fundraiser, Benner underwent transplant surgery, beginning a new life with a new heart.
"I remember waking up one time, looking around and going back to sleep," Bobby said of what his memories were that day. "That first day you're in and out with all the anesthesia."
He was 49 at the time, a man who only a few months earlier had been a physically fit avid outdoorsman. His leap from good health to bad came swiftly with a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy and a clotting disorder.
"The Lord wasn't ready for him back then, and I'm very glad," Cheryl smiles as the two sit across from each other in a booth at Tim Horton's where a one-decade-later story interview unfolds.
A lot has happened in those 10 years.
They celebrated more anniversaries.
They gained a daughter-in-law - Andrea - when their son Bo got married.
They became grandparents with the birth of Brynlee, Bo and Andrea's daughter who turns 1 on March 24.
"There's been a lot of stuff," Bobby said.
Cheryl interjects. "The bad stuff was he had a lot of rejection the first year (after the transplant) and had to be hospitalized a couple times."
Then came a bout of rectal cancer in 2007.
"He came through that and just got over skin cancer in December," she said.
"You're built to last," the reporter assesses.
"I think so," he laughs. "So far. I mean there's a lot there. Like she said I had problems. You just keep doing what you can do and between the family and her especially ..." He looks at his wife, pauses, emotion gripping him.
"We're just very blessed," Cheryl says, filling in the lull in conversation.
"He remains an inspiration to everybody. Anybody who needs anything he's there," she says proudly.
The couple are natives of Barberton who moved to Jefferson County in 1987 at the encouragement of his then co-workers at Norfolk Southern Railroad.
They loved the area and the people and are thankful both their sons, including Brian, live nearby.
They agree they are testimony to but one display of the area's generosity when it comes to supporting fundraisers for a multitude of causes.
"It's just amazing - the good people of the Valley," Bobby said.
"We are originally from the Akron area and people who attended the benefit really believe we would never have had that response had we had it up north. It was just unbelievable," Cheryl said in retrospect. "The people are just something here - they really are."
The Benners appreciate those who support being organ donors, too.
About three years after the surgery, the Benners met with the family of the donor who provided Bobby with a heart. Her name was Dana. She was 20.
It wasn't their initial intention, though.
"All I wanted to do was send a thank-you card," Cheryl said. "How can you not thank someone for saving your husband's life," she said in explaining her reason for wanting to communicate with the donor's family.
The Benners explained they made the request through C.O.R.E. out of Pittsburgh. C.O.R.E. is an acronym for the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, which is "a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting donation, education and research for the purpose of saving and improving the quality of life through organ, tissue and corneal transplantation," according to its website.
Cheryl said it was a hard card to write.
"It took a long time to write it," she said of her struggle to find the right words, to pen it well.
Then came a desire to meet, to come face to face.
"They're like a go-between," Cheryl explained. "You send a letter to C.O.R.E., C.O.R.E. gets ahold of the donor family and vice versa."
If both sides agree to connecting, a meeting is arranged in the CORE offices.
"They bring you together (for a meeting in the C.O.R.E. offices), and whether or not you want to take it from there, you decide," Bob said.
"We had that initial meeting with the donor family at least three years out," Cheryl said. "It was winter and snow was everywhere." They met the donor's parents and two siblings.
They ended up all going out to dinner.
"It was like we had always known them," Cheryl said of the relationship's evolution.
An emotional retelling moment came for Cheryl in remembering the donor mother's request: Could she listen to the heartbeat from Bobby's chest from the heart that was her daughter's?
"That was really something," Cheryl said.
At least twice a year, the Benners and the donor's family from Pennsylvania get together, their most recent visit just weeks ago. Bobby presented them with a barn quilt square made in Dana's memory.
"They're good people," he said. "We've become very, very good friends with our donor family," he said.
The Benners identified what their message is to readers, their "words of wisdom."
Bobby said, "Keep your faith. Things happen, and you've just got to bounce back the best you can."
"You take life, you take your family and friends for granted too often when things are going good," he added.
Both encouraged people to consider being organ donors.
Cheryl said she has a chance to do that in her job with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. It might seem like a coincidence to some but not Cheryl. "I think that's one of the reasons I was brought to that job in my mind," she said.
"It truly works, and there's so much need," she added.
Bobby said people normally only get one shot at life.
"You don't get two usually. I got two," he said.
"I thank God every day for him," Cheryl said.
(Kiaski can be contacted a firstname.lastname@example.org.)