The last thing Sal Prestigiacomo imagined, though he’d been getting breathless while walking up flights of stairs, was that he was dangerously ill. “I thought I had bronchitis,” the 61-year-old Staten Island resident explains. But he grew worse until, in the fall of 2012, he landed in a local hospital. There, he got frightening news: He’d had several silent heart attacks. Surgeons attempted a bypass, but the damage was so extensive it was impossible to repair. He lapsed into prolonged unconsciousness.
Then came a lifesaving break: Westchester Medical Center, the leading heart treatment center in the Hudson Valley region, agreed to take on Prestigiacomo’s difficult case. Transported there by ambulance, he arrived teetering between life and death, yet doctors stabilized him. Regaining consciousness, Prestigiacomo was shocked to learn he was in Valhalla, and that a heart transplant was his best hope for survival.
He was placed on the transplant list—beginning an agonizing wait for a heart that might not become available in time. But Prestigiacomo had two powerful things buoying him: Westchester Medical Center’s expert care and the camaraderie of his fellow heart-transplant candidates in the hospital. Soon, he grew close with two other men. “Under other circumstances, Michael Bright and Ernie Deal and I probably wouldn’t have met,” he says. “But it was like we belonged to a club—even the doctors and nurses hadn’t experienced exactly what we were going through. We’d sit and talk. If I was feeling down, they’d say, ‘Come on, what are you doing?’” The friendship was a priceless resource for all three patients: “It was how we got through the days,” Prestigiacomo says.
Prestigiacomo’s touching story—friendships forged in dire circumstances—plays out repeatedly among Westchester Medical Center’s heart transplant patients, who must remain in the hospital until a heart is located for them. “It’s unique, because these patients are brought together at a certain moment in their lives,” says Alan Gass, MD, Medical Director of Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support. “They may come from different places, races, creeds or economic classes, but there’s this common theme: They’re waiting for a heart. It’s amazing what they find to bond over—art projects, games, sports programs on TV.”
Corinne Gamino and Kathleen Shafer didn’t just create a close tie over crafting—they crocheted one. Gamino, 70, had struggled with congestive heart failure for years before ending up on the hospital’s fifth floor, where most heart transplant patients stay. “At first there were nine men there, plus me,” the Monroe resident says of those first days of her wait, in the summer 2013. Then finally, Kathleen Shafer, 65, of Newburgh arrived. “The nurses told me, ‘There’s another lady on the floor, and she knits and crochets,’” Gamino remembers. The two women became fast friends. “We both have kids and grandkids, and so we had a lot to talk about. We were each other’s cheerleaders,” says Shafer, whose heart had been damaged by a viral infection. Explains Gamino, “When you’re waiting for a heart, you have to have willpower, and you have to have faith. We kept each other’s willpower and faith going strong.” By coincidence, Shafer and Gamino had their transplants on consecutive days that August and spent most of their recovery time in a shared room. “The two of us were a great support for each other,” Gamino jokes. “She’d moan, and I’d say ‘You’re going to be fine!’ Or I’d moan, and she’d offer to call the nurse.”
A Staff to Lean On
As patients wait for a transplant, friendships begin to form with the hospital’s personnel, too. “I get to know each patient inside and out,” says Dr. Gass. “I asked one religious patient to teach me about the Bible. Another was a chef, so I’d ask him to come up with recipes for me.” One man was homesick for his native Trinidad. “I created a Caribbean scene on the whiteboard in his room,” Dr. Gass recalls. “Each day I’d add something—boats, seagulls.” The man recovered and went back to Trinidad, returning later with a similar painting he’d found, which he gave to Dr. Gass in gratitude.
Kathy Brown, a nurse practitioner for heart failure and transplant, isn’t surprised that she and others become such a big part of a patient’s emotional support system. “The average wait is around three to five months,” she explains. “And so we really try to make this the patients’ home while they are here. We have them put up family photos, and they’ll go into each other’s rooms and have card games, watch movies, do puzzles and learn crafts.”
One person who definitely makes the fifth floor cozier is Sue Young, a nurse in the cardiac catheterization lab. “A few years ago, a good friend of mine was in here for a transplant, and, as I visited him, I’d get to know the other patients,” she says. Moved by their challenges, she put her time and energy into brightening their surroundings and boosting their spirits—something she continues to this day, long after her own friend’s recovery. “I visit the floor about three or four times a week, getting to know everyone by name,” Young explains. She also coordinates an effort to decorate for major holidays. “We hang hearts on Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for Saint Patrick’s—you get the picture!” she laughs. “On Thanksgiving we have a home-cooked buffet meal, and at Christmas I try to make sure each patient on the floor gets a little tree in his or her room.”
Of course, patients are happiest when they’re able to return to their real homes. And after receiving donor hearts and recovering from their transplants, that’s what Corinne Gamino and Kathleen Shafer did. Yet the two keep their special bond alive by chatting on the phone regularly and getting together whenever they can. “There’s a mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral coming up for organ donors and their families, and we are thinking of going together,” says Shafer. Adds Gamino, “I think we’re going to be friends forever.” They and many other former transplant patients also regularly return to the hospital to visit those still awaiting hearts, sharing their experiences and giving needed encouragement.
Sal Prestigiacomo, celebrating the second life his new heart gave him more than two years ago, asks his wife Shelly to schedule his regular post-transplant checkups at Westchester Medical Center at the same time his pals Ernie and Michael do; all three remain good friends. “It gives us a chance to see each other, and sometimes we’ll have lunch,” Prestigiacomo says. He looks forward to those chances to catch up with the men who, though they come from different walks of life, he now considers kin. “We were like guys who go off to war, guys who have to fight,” he explains. “We became blood brothers—bonded by heart disease.”