By Wayne Drehs
Ronald Griffin, the New Jersey man whose life was saved four years ago when he received the heart of former University of North Carolina mascot Jason Ray, died this week. He was 62.
Ronald's wife Stephanie said she was driving home from their granddaughter's graduation in North Carolina on Wednesday when she grew concerned that her husband had failed to show up for his dialysis appointment back in New Jersey. Stephanie hadn't spoken to Ronald since Monday morning. Police were summoned to the Griffin's home in Somerset, where they found the retired postal worker unresponsive. Stephanie said an exact cause of death is not known. Foul play is not suspected. An autopsy was not scheduled.
Messages left for the Franklin (N.J.) Township Police Department were not immediately returned, but Stephanie Griffin said investigators told her they believe Ronald died in his sleep at some point Monday night.
"It's a surprise. A total surprise," she said Wednesday after returning to New Jersey. "When I talked to him on Monday he was feeling fine. He told me to take lots of pictures and he'd see me when I got home. I just can't believe it."
In March 2007, Griffin's name was at the top of the heart transplant recipient list when Ray, the 21-year-old North Carolina senior, was struck by a car outside UNC's team hotel in Fort Lee, N.J. Ray died from the injuries suffered in the accident, but his decision to become an organ donor gave Griffin a new heart, a new life and a new basketball team to cheer for.
On his way into surgery for the transplant Griffin's doctors told him, "You should become a North Carolina fan." So Griffin did just that, cheering for the Tar Heels while vowing to never forget the gift Ray had given him.
Ray's decision to become a donor and the effect it had on Griffin and the three other men who received Ray's organs was outlined in ESPN's Emmy Award-winning story, "Ray of Hope."
"Without Jason, there would be no me," Griffin said in 2007. "And as long as I breathe and my heart beats, Jason, to a degree, is alive."
After he received his new heart, Griffin said he felt like a 21 year old again. He joked that Stephanie could no longer keep up with him. But in the fall of 2009 his kidneys began to fail, and in September of that year he began dialysis. This past March, Griffin and Antwan Hunter, who received one of Jason's kidneys, attended North Carolina's 81-63 Sweet Sixteen win against Marquette in Newark.
Wednesday's news was also difficult for Jason's parents, Emmitt and Charlotte Ray. Emmitt Ray said Wednesday that the Griffins were planning to visit them in North Carolina later this summer.
"Our heart goes out to Stephanie and all of Ronald's family," Emmitt Ray said. "It's a sad day. Every time we got together he would say thank you. He was so elated that Jason had given him this gift."
It was a sense of appreciation that Griffin shared from the first moment he met Jason's parents. On that night, as Emmitt Ray introduced himself, Griffin interrupted and wrapped his arms around Jason's dad.
"I love you," he said.
Since then, the two couples have remained close, with Ronald and his wife Stephanie visiting the Rays in North Carolina and the two couples traveling together to spread the world about the importance of organ donation.
Jason Ray's decision to be a donor helped prolong the lives of Griffin, 47-year-old Dennis Korzelius (liver), 44-year-old David Erving (kidney and pancreas) and the 20-year-old Hunter. According toDonate Life America, the attention Ray's story received prompted more than 46,000 Americans to become organ donors, a number that could save as many as 165,000 lives.
Griffin is the first of Ray's four direct organ recipients to die.
"Charlotte just sent us a card last week in which she wrote that God had hand-picked Ronald to be the man who received Jason's heart," Stephanie said. "And that meant the world to Ronald.
"He cared so much about Jason's legacy and everything that young man did for him. That's what he'd want to come out of this. He'd want people to continue to remember Jason and the power of organ donation. He'd want this momentum to never stop."
Funeral services were pending.