When Rob Ronnenberg captured the moment his fiancée took her first breath with new lungs, he did so only to preserve the powerful moment. But since posting it to YouTube, it’s been seen around the world.
Jennifer Jones lay in a hospital bed about to take her first breath with new lungs. Cystic fibrosis had stolen Jennifer's breath, and so much more, over the years. A lung transplant gave her a chance to get some of it back. As her care team at Mayo Clinic removed Jennifer's breathing tube, her fiancé, Rob Ronnenberg, pressed record and captured the scene on video. "You're breathing!" someone in the room says, and Jennifer's eyes widen. It's a powerful moment—and one that's been viewed by millions of people around the world since Rob posted the video on YouTube back in October.
"Overwhelming and unexpected sum it up best," Rob says of going viral in the months since. He'd taken the video simply to preserve the moment for Jennifer and—the couple hoped—to share with the donor's family someday. Rob and Jennifer say the interest in the video has been a happy surprise, giving them a welcome platform to raise awareness of cystic fibrosis, encourage people to register as organ donors, and highlight the life-changing difference of donation. "Breathing has been on my mind for so long, but I didn't understand how bad off I really was until being able to breathe again," Jennifer says.
The video also has given the couple a chance to connect with other donor families and transplant recipients, many of whom have reached out to them via social media. "Some have shared their sorrow of loss and how this has brought them peace," Jennifer says. "Others have messages of encouragement, having lived many years after transplant, and for others, it gives them hope for all kinds of reasons." Rob tells us the responses "have been overwhelmingly positive, which is pretty uplifting."
Most of all, Jennifer and Rob say they're grateful for the opportunity the experience has given them to publicly thank Jennifer's donor and their family. "I wouldn't be here today without them," Jennifer tells KIMT-TV. "It's not about me, it's about them and their legacy." That legacy has given Jennifer a chance to do things she hasn't in years. Simple things, like making dinner or climbing the stairs to tuck her kids into bed. And special things, like planning a wedding. "Jennifer's health declined rapidly after our engagement, so everything was postponed," Rob says. "Now we get to plan our wedding and dream about our happy ending."
A happy ending made possible by the "real hero" of the story, Rob says: Jennifer's donor. "Without them and their family turning a sad period of their lives into something beautiful they could share with others, we wouldn't be talking today," he tells us. "As Jennifer likes to say, this is her miracle, but it's their legacy that lives on."
Update: From Viral Video to a Walk Down the Aisle on Reality TV
Shortly before they said their "I dos," Jennifer Jones received a special necklace from her fiancé, Rob Ronnenberg. The necklace included three birthstones: his, hers and that of Lacey, a woman they had never met.
That might seem like a strange gift for a bride-to-be. But Lacey, an organ donor whose lungs made Jennifer's walk down the aisle possible, is as essential to Jennifer as the air she can now breathe. The necklace, Rob wrote to Jennifer in a note accompanying the gift, would serve as a beautiful reminder of their connection to each other, an acknowledgement that "Lacey will always be an important part of our lives and I will cherish every day and every breath we have together."
It was a heartfelt, tearful scene made for the movies. Or, for TV. Which is exactly where it played out on Feb. 26, in a ceremony that aired live on "My Great Big Live Wedding with David Tutera." The couple we introduced you to last year caught the attention of the reality show's producers when a video of Jennifer's first breath after her lung transplant went viral. "When they first contacted us, we thought it was a joke," Rob tells us.
But email messages led to Skype interviews, and in October, Jennifer and Rob got the news that they were one of eight "inspirational couples" chosen to be part of the show. Though they're "not really big attention people," Rob tells the Rochester Post-Bulletin that they were eager to sign on. "It's given us a platform for our cause—cystic fibrosis awareness and the need for organ donation," Rob tells the publication. "We do appreciate it from that angle."
The show's host, celebrity wedding and event planner Tutera, met with the couple to learn their story and get a sense of their style and wedding wishes. But the details, from the location to Jennifer's wedding dress, were kept a secret. "That is what is so fun about it, it is exciting they get to do all the planning and make all of our dreams come true," Jennifer told KARE-11 before the wedding. And that meant all of the planning — right down to the wedding gown Tutera designed for her, which even the bride didn't see before the big day. "I tried it on, but I was blindfolded so I have no idea what it looks like." (Spoiler alert: she loved it. We did, too.)
Other surprises that delighted the bride (and groom): a wedding aisle lined with baby's breath and 6,500 purple roses adorning the Union Depot in St. Paul, where the wedding was held. Vicki Dean, a Mayo Clinic cystic fibrosis nurse who has cared for Jennifer since she was diagnosed with the disease, was on hand to explain the significance of the flowers, telling wedding guests (and the TV audience) that "65 roses" is how some children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis pronounce the disease.
Just as beautiful to the couple as the flowers were the faces of the guests that surrounded them, including Dean, respiratory therapist Rose Felten, and transplant physician Mark Wylam, M.D. "The people at Mayo aren't just staff," Jennifer tells us. "They become your family. It meant the world to us to have them there."