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Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network > News & Views > News Blog > SEVEN OF HEARTS: Following Seven Men Waiting for Heart Transplants

SEVEN OF HEARTS: Following Seven Men Waiting for Heart Transplants

March 4th, 2013 by

In the written word, photos and video, and interactive media including an iPad app, we learn how seven men waiting for heart transplants bonded and found support during weekly poker games.

Graphic courtesy of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Graphic courtesy of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

What can you say about seven men who get to be best friends at the University of Rochester Medical Center/Strong Memorial Hospital over the many months they are forced to wait for heart transplants? Men who find some level of strength and kinship in getting together once a week to play cards?

Also, what can you say about two journalists of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle−one a master of the written word, the other an artist in the realm of  photography and video−who dedicate more than two months of  their lives to cover a story? Journalists who document the hopes, fears, see-sawing health and close friendships that develop through shared uncertainty and moments of hope?

That, in essence, is what emerged when reporter Sean Dobbin and photo/videographer Annette Lein spent 10 weeks following seven patients whose lives hung in the balance.

We at the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network (FLDRN) are in awe at the depth and thoughtfulness of the D & C article and the compelling videos, photos and interactive media, including an iPad app (involving Rochester Magazine). This was no short-term media assignment. And it shows!

We want to share this fine media effort with everyone. We think its award-winning!

The Seven

For some, the journey ends happily with a transplant. One patient is removed from the waiting list because he is too sick; one of them is transferred to another transplant center as his health worsens. For too many, the waiting continues.

Patients in Upstate New York wait an average of five months or longer to receive a new heart. For some of the men featured, that delay would be considered short, as they were hospitalized for about a year on the so-called “1A list.”

These are the seven patients “at the heart” of the D & C story:

♥ Joe Martino (66), from Niagara Falls, who finally receive a new heart on February 20, 2013, and who was recovering at Strong Memorial.

♥ Russell Pecoraro (61), who lives in Grand Island, Erie County, had been waiting five months for a heart transplant.

♥ Jim McMahon (58), whose hometown is Chili, and who had been on the list for six months.

♥ Gates Orlando (50), from Victor, the Rochester Americans Hall of Famer whose saga has been well documented: Before his transplant in early February, an artificial heart had kept him alive. By the time he was discharged from Strong Memorial, he had spent 208 days in the hospital.

♥ John Pierce (55), from Ellisburg, Jefferson County, who waited for a heart transplant for 14 months, and was moved to a hospital in Pittsburgh in January 2013.

♥ Russell Sammarco (67), who lives in Tonawanda, Erie County, who waited for a heart for seven months before returning home in January 2013. His name was removed from the waiting list because he was too sick to undergo a transplant.

♥ Cecil Van Houten (58), from Bath, Steuben County and who had been waiting for his new heart for five months.

Seven of Hearts: Patients bond over card game while waiting for their hearts.

Here are some excerpts from the article. These brief insights say a whole lot about what it means to wait, and wait, and wait…


Cards spinning toward him, Joe Martino isn’t thinking about his mortality. Or his sodium levels, or his daily blood pressure exams, or the five minutes it takes him to catch his breath every time he takes a shower.

Right now, his mind is on the game.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

As Martino picks up his cards, he glances up at the four other men around the table: Russell Pecoraro, Gates Orlando, Cecil Van Houten and Russell Sammarco.

Two of the game’s regulars aren’t here. John Pierce had to be fitted for a breathing mask. Jim McMahon wasn’t feeling well.

Soon, four of these seven men will be gone. Two will receive heart transplants. A third will move to a different hospital. A fourth will fall off the transplant list and return home.

But for now, the men who are seated wear looks of contented focus. With the cards dealt, Martino takes a few seconds to arrange his hand. He reaches for a chip and tosses it into the middle of the table.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Given the litany of factors, heart transplant patients at Strong usually spend between three and six months waiting, said Annette Grindle, nurse manager for the hospital’s Heart Failure and Transplantation Unit. For some patients, the wait can drag on much longer.

Martino didn’t know any of this until recently. Before arriving at Strong, he assumed he’d be in and out of the hospital in a week. It has been 11 months.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

While time seems to stand still for Martino and the others, the card game is one of the week’s few reprieves.

It came together last fall, when a nurse suggested to Russell Pecoraro that the patients should start getting together for a weekly activity.

So Pecoraro, 61, of Grand Island, Erie County, went room to room, rounding up players. Jim McMahon, a fellow patient who works at Wegmans, called his employer and got a catered meal delivered, and the men all got together for dinner and poker. They’ve played every week ever since.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Looking down at what he’s been dealt in this particular hand, Van Houten deems his cards worthy, and throws in a chip.

The seat next to him is empty, however. John Pierce joined the other patients for dinner but had to leave before the card game started when a nurse summoned him to be fitted for a new breathing mask.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

After more than a year total in the hospital, Pierce has grown thin and gaunt. He’s tired all the time, and his lungs are starting to deteriorate.

Desperate to improve his odds, Pierce in January moved to a hospital in Pittsburgh. There, he might be able to get a lung transplant as well — a procedure that Strong does not perform.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Seated next to Martino, Russell Sammarco pulls his cards in close.

Lately, Sammarco’s body has started to fold under the stress of his illness. He’s not ready to fold this hand just yet, though, so he throws in a chip, joining Van Houten and Martino.

Sammarco, 67, is at home at any card table.

Back in his hometown of Tonawanda, Erie County, he would regularly gather with friends for nights of high-stakes poker. In the heart ward — where most of the hands include several wild cards and where $10 will last you all night — the game is significantly tamer.

But Sammarco, who years ago owned a beeper business before going to work for Erie County, still loves to play. He helps the newcomers learn the rules of some of the more complicated games and can name how much he won or lost in each session.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

In recent months, problems have developed. After catching pneumonia, he [Sammarco] spent 10 days in intensive care, and then developed lung problems.

Soon, staffers began keeping a closer eye on him. Though it can be a wrenching decision, doctors are sometimes forced to consider removing sick patients from the transplant list.

… Donated organs are invaluable gifts, and with thousands of other needy recipients waiting, hospitals are unwilling to administer transplants to those who are struggling with other illnesses.

Sammarco underwent a lung biopsy in December. He was making arrangements to leave the heart ward soon after.

The patients held a farewell poker game for him, and he left Strong in late January.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Only Martino and Sammarco remain, and now that moment is here: the players begin to show their hands. Pacemaker cells charge and re-charge at a greater rate as their hearts — failing but still very much their own — start beating faster.

Martino and Sammarco have great cards. With several wilds in play, they both have four aces.

… Since they shared nearly identical hands, the winner of that December hand came down to the fifth and final card.

Sammarco had a queen. But as he looked over at Martino, he realized that it wasn’t quite good enough. In poker, aces may be gold, but kings are silphium.

Martino fanned out his hand, revealing his final card: the king of hearts.


Rob Kochik is the executive director of the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network.

Editorial Note: The poker hand described throughout the narrative occurred on Dec. 12, 2012.







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