During your senior year in high school, you’re supposed to be king of the hill. If you’re the star of the basketball team in a small town, it’s a guarantee.
Ryan Rochlitz should have been on top of the world. He had football and basketball scholarships-albeit to smaller schools-all lined up. He would guide the Burns (Wyo.) High basketball team to the state championship (the team had fallen just short the year before) and leave town a hero.
But he was tired. Practice was torture. He could never get enough air. He was just out of shape, he told himself, but that couldn’t be true because he out-worked the entire team. Every minute he played left him feeling like he’d played an entire game. Finally, knowing he had to get things figured out before the post season, he went to see a doctor.
First, he was told he had a sinus infection. The coach let him take some time off and he felt a little better. He tried to play some more, but he still had no energy. A second doctor thought it was mononucleosis-but he also thought he heard a heart murmur. To be sure, the doctor ordered a chest X-ray. He got it back and it showed Rochlitz’s heart was twice the size of a normal one.
Immediately he sent him to Cheyenne, about 20 miles to the west, for further examination. At first, the doctors there thought it was fluid around his heart, but being unsure of that diagnosis, they sent the 18-year-old Rochlitz to University Hospital in Denver. There, they measured his ejection fraction, how much blood the heart was pumping out, and it was around 10 percent. A normal, healthy heart measures at around 65-75 percent. Rochlitz had developed Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy, a condition most likely caused by a viral infection that enlarges the heart muscle.
The experts mentioned transplant at the time, but instead put him on Coumadin and took him off of sports. He lost his scholarships. His team lost in the first round of regional competition. He graduated and high school rodeoed.
“I didn’t even rope or anything while I was on the Coumadin-they told me not to, but finally I was just like forget it. I went to the last few high school rodeos and roped that summer, but got to feeling bad again toward the end of that summer.”
As his condition worsened, the only way he could fall asleep was to pile pillows on his lap and lean forward on them. Because his heart couldn’t get enough blood to his stomach, he couldn’t eat without throwing everything back up. At first, doctors thought something was wrong with his digestive system. He went ahead and enrolled in classes at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne on a rodeo scholarship, but was still sick all of the time.
He went back to Denver again, where the doctors found his injection fraction was down to 7 percent and that he had three months to live unless they could find a donor heart. Because of his age and condition, he was put on the top of the donor list. Great news, except for the fact that the average wait for a heart is six months to a year. At any given time, there are over 2,500 people on the donor list waiting for a heart.
The math didn’t add up.
“I’m 18 years old and somebody tells me I’ve got to get a transplant within three months or I’m going to die,” Rochlitz said. “That’s a pretty harsh reality when you’re 18 years old. Being stuck in that hospital, hooked up to an IV gave me a lot of time to think about life and everything. I just did a lot of soul-searching and thinking about life in general and the bigger picture.
“I looked back to my junior year when I was in high school playing basketball, the last practice before we went to state, my coach sat us down and told us, ‘You seniors, this is your last year, you have to play hard. You juniors, you need to play the same way, because odd things seem to happen around regional tournament time.’ I remember plain as day, thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, what’s the worst that could happen? Sprain my ankle?’ Sure enough, a year later at regional tournament I was in the hospital with all this stuff starting.”
His whole family was wracked with grief. His mother remembered the feelings they were going through waiting for a heart.
“Emotions and guilt ran high knowing that in order for our son to live another must die. I could not pray for this, but offered up my own son first,” said Jackie Higlin, Ryan’s mother. “I did, however, in my prayers ask that no one would bury a heart if an untimely death occurred.”
Three weeks later, as he lay in the hospital bed, somewhere across town a 23-year-old with Rochlitz’s blood type (A) was killed in a motorcycle accident. On his driver’s license, it stated he was a donor. On October 5 of 1997, the doctors performed the transplant.
“After they did my surgery, the doctors came in and said they overshot the three month-estimate, I probably only had two weeks left,” Rochlitz said. “After they got in there, they said it was bad. The surgeon that did it said he had done some really big hearts and had always been able to get them out with one hand, mine he had to use two hands to get out. They showed me some X-rays after my transplant. My old one was the size of a big old dinner plate, while the new one was the size of a dessert plate.”
Through Donor Alliance, he and his family have visited with the family of the man who donated his heart so Ryan could continue to live. They’ve visited on the phone and sent each other pictures of their sons.
“You have to think about how in a time when their lives are totally destroyed, how they can think of others and want to help somebody else,” said Higlin.
Recovery was no cake walk, either. Rejection is always a threat, from two hours after the surgery to twenty years. Plus, there’s always the danger of infection.
“I got a viral infection, my new heart had it, but I didn’t. It’s real common, most people had it and I didn’t,” Rochlitz said. “It’s called CMV. I ended up being diabetic. My blood sugar was over 1,300, normal is 80-120. The guy said I should have been in a coma. Then once I got that under control, they sent me back and I had to do IV’s twice a day for four months to try to get rid of that infection.
“There is always a danger of rejection. I’ll be on rejection medicine my whole life. Some of the side effects of the drugs are minor, but it’s just stuff I have to keep on top of. It’s been pretty easy since I got rid of that virus.”
On New Year’s Day 1998, he took his new heart to it’s first roping.
Things were beginning to get back on track. He was living with his dad, Ron, who taught the equine management program at LCCC and owned an indoor barn he rented out for equine events, while taking classes. His mother is a principal in Rapid City, S.D. His dad’s folks, Leonard and Vi, also lived on the place.
Rochlitz was getting his strength back and beginning to enjoy a normal life when he was thrown another curve. His dad was diagnosed with cancer. It started in his lymph nodes and progressed to his bone marrow. By the summer of 1999, he needed a bone marrow transplant. That process nearly killed him, but he survived. Then, in September, Leonard and Vi were in a car accident and Vi died.
“My grandpa was devastated,” he said. “I was just trying to stay there and help him after my grandmother died, but my dad was real sick, too.”
Ever the good soldier, Ryan signed up for classes again that fall. At a college rodeo he called his dad to tell him he had made the short-go in the calf roping-an event he seldom works and seldom has success in. Of course he was proud and Ryan told him he’d call after the short round and give him a report.
He placed second in the average and was excited to tell Ron when the rest of his extended family, in town for a wedding, found him and told him his dad had passed. If he hadn’t had a brand new heart, it just might have broken right there.
“It was hard for me,” he said. “It was just tough trying to get through school and stay on top of everything. I guess going through my transplant beforehand kind of made it a little easier as far as keeping my head on straight.
“I don’t know what I did or how I did it, I just got through it. I had to grow up pretty fast. Twenty years old and I’ve been through all that already. There’s not much you can say, I guess. You can either let it get the best of you and crawl in a hole, give up and wait for it all to go away or just keep going.”
So he and his new heart just kept right on going.”He’s truly had a rough go,” his friend, Wrangler NFR heeler and testicular cancer survivor Jhett Johnson, said. “We’ve both had some big troubles. Him and I have sat together in the truck at a rodeo some nights and had some pretty good conversations. I enjoy them and I know he does, too.”
For a long while he had wanted to go south where he could rope year round and improve his game. Too many things kept him tied to Cheyenne, first taking care of his dad, then his grandfather and all along running the indoor barn. Plus, it was important to stay driving distance from Denver for regular checkups.
But spring is a time for new beginnings. During spring break, he visited West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas. He took an entrance exam and decided if he passed, he’d go, which he did. His grandfather gave him his blessing to leave, assuring Ryan he’d be fine.
“I went to Canyon to improve my roping and rope with guys better than me,” he said. “It was good for me. I worked at it everyday when I was going to school down there.”
After a semester of trying to run the barn from two states away, he decided he’d sell it-something his father had always told him he could do.
By December of 2002, he graduated with an agriculture business degree. Right out of school, he spent the winter in Arizona with good friend Colt Bruegmann. From there, he’s had various adventures, all the time roping and training horses. He went to Paris with Ryan Zurcher to work in EuroDisney’s Wild West Show for a summer. He worked for Justin Johnson, Jhett’s brother, training cutting horses. In California, he worked for Ozzie Gillum. Plus, he gives interviews to promote organ donor awareness, shares his story and advice with youth groups and makes time to talk to people who are facing an organ transplant surgery.
“I look at everything I’ve done and the people I’ve met and I wouldn’t have done any of it,” he said. “Everybody talks about getting a second chance and I got a pretty good one. I had my whole life ahead of me and it about didn’t happen. I look at it where I’m going to enjoy my life, do what I want to do and make the best of whatever. No regrets. If I want to do something, I’ll go do it because you never know what’s going to happen.”
What has happened for him is a slow but steady chipping away at his goals. His first one, to make the Mountain States Circuit Finals as a heeler, just came to fruition this year. The next is to start a foundation that will help people in need of an organ transplant or cancer treatment who don’t have insurance to have the procedures paid for. The Denzel Washington movie, John Q, and his own battles with the insurance companies inspired him to get the ball rolling for Cowboys for Life.
“I’d hate to see someone denied an organ they needed just because they didn’t have insurance,” he said. “It’s not about money, it’s about saving someone’s life. I know there are people out there who are in that position. I just need donations and support for it. Hopefully it will go good enough that I can help a few people.”
Plus, he wants to see organ donation awareness grow. He wears a green wristband to promote Donate Life, a national organ donor awareness organization. It’s a tough row to hoe because breaching the subject of organ donation means talking about dying and that’s something most people shy away from.
“You have one option if you need an organ. For other diseases and illness, there can be options,
but in these situations you have one shot,” he said. “So I think it’s every bit as important as anything else. It’s something that everybody in the world
can fix. You can save eight people’s lives just by being a donor.
“I think everybody wants to be a hero in some way or another and here’s your chance to save someone’s life.”
Pretty amazing perspective from someone his age, but maybe easier to understand considering all that he’s been through.
“He’s amazing in a lot of different ways,” said Higlin. “When he was younger he couldn’t stand needles and doctors, for him to overcome that was special. When you think about an 18-year-old kid, they’re supposed to be so excited about moving on to college and sports was a huge part of his life. Then he had all of that jerked out from under him. He’s still a kind but responsible person. He’s not one to bring it up, even some of the people that rodeo in his same circle don’t know about his past.
“I think he took the cards that were dealt him and has a different outlook on life than a lot of people. He does what he wants to do what he lives for and what he enjoys because he thinks life is pretty short. I think that life has a different meaning for Ryan.”
He’ll tell you the same thing, and for that very reason he wants to make more out of however long he’s on this earth. He’s teamed up with Cheyenne Equine, Cinch Apparel and Cactus Saddlery in hopes for a Wrangler NFR qualification in the future.
“I’d like to just get out there and see how it goes,” he said. “Ultimately I’d like to get to the finals and win the world. I’ll try that for a while. I’m not going to just take off and go if I can’t afford it, but I’ve been on my own financially since I was 19, so I’m not going to dig myself in a hole just to go. But if I get everything set up I’m going to give it a shot.
“It’s always been there, roping the dummy pretending to be at the Finals, but I’m sure everybody says it. I’m to the point now though that I am going to do it. That’s my goal and it’s going to take a lot to not get me there. I’m hungry for it, but I’m smart about it.
“Whatever you want to do, go at it whole-heartedly. Don’t cut corners or slack off. Work at it like it’s your only shot.”