It looks like Carol Kankoski might just be home for New Year’s after all.
When we last spoke to Kankoski, she had been waiting at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Strong Memorial Hospital for a new heart (“Give the gift of life,” Eagle Star-Review, Dec. 14). On Dec. 15, she got it.
“My doctor thinks I’ll be going home around the first of the year,” Kankoski said. “I’ll celebrate Christmas day and maybe New Year’s here, but it will be worth it.”
The 64-year-old Mattydale woman was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy—literally translated as a deterioration in the function of the actual heart muscle—in 1999. Her heart function began to decline in 2009 to the point where her regular cardiologist, Dr. Daniel Fuleihan of the New York Heart Center in Syracuse, decided to send her to Strong for regular checkups. At her last checkup, her cardiac function had become so poor that Dr. Eugene Storozynsky, Kankoski’s cardiologist at Strong, decided to admit her and put her on the list for a heart transplant.
In this region, there are 848 people awaiting organ transplants, including 52 who need a new heart. In New York, there are 10,000 people waiting for organs, more than 112,000 in the country, according to the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network,
The turn of events came very rapidly, Kankoski said.
“Last [Thursday] morning at about 7 a.m., one of the nurses came in and did my numbers,” she recalled. “I was still awake, and she pinched my toe, and said, ‘Hey, we found you a heart.’ I just looked at her, dumbfounded, and said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘We found you a heart, and if everything goes right, you’ll be going into surgery this afternoon.’ Then it was nothing but a fiasco in my room until 4:30 — they were drawing my blood, getting me prepared, it was just crazy.
“They finally took me down at 4:30 and I went in with the anesthesiologist. The staff was absolutely fantastic. There were five or six of them who just sat with me and held my hand, one after another. They relaxed me. They were so great. Everybody was just so wonderful to me. There are the nicest people at this hospital, and they made it so easy for me. If you have to be sick, this is the place to be. I didn’t have time to get scared. The next thing I knew, I was back in the room with my family.”
Kankoski is now recovering in Strong’s step-down cardiac care unit, according to Storozynsky.
“She’s doing really well,” he said. “She has a temporary pacemaker, which occurs 100 percent of the time in transplant patients. We’re waiting for her own native heart rhythm to awaken. It’s going great. Her long-term prognosis is great.”
While Kankoski does face some risk of her body rejecting the organ, Storozynsky said that risk is minimized by high doses of immunosuppsressant drugs and close monitoring in the early weeks of recovery. Once her medication levels can be lowered and her new heart is beating on its own without the aid of the pacemaker, Kankoski can return home.
Kankoski said she’s feeling great.
“I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “They’re calling me wonder woman.”
She said she’s going to take full advantage of her second chance at life.
“I’m going to live life to its fullest,” Kankoski said. “I have more time with my family and my grandkids and my friends.”
She knows she has a family out there to thank for that second chance.
“I have to wait a year before I find out where the heart came from,” Kankoski said. “I want to thank them. How do you not? I understand the family’s privacy, but they gave such a gift. I have to do something. Hopefully I’ll find out sooner rather than later.”
In addition, Kankoski said she’ll pay back that kindness by advocating for organ donation.
“That’s something I will push,” she said. “I know a couple of people who have gone out and registered as donors. That’s certainly something good that’s come from this. I’ll keep pushing for that.”
Storozynsky noted that Kankoski was fortunate to be healthy enough to accept her transplant when she did.
“It turned out, due to a series of events, that she was very fortunate at this time to be able to accept a heart,” he said. “Every day, people on the list become too sick to continue. They may drop off. Every day, their position changes. They move up to the top or move off entirely depending on their health. It so happened that on that day, Carol was healthy enough to accept the heart that came her way.”
Kankoski said it was more than just good fortune.
“This was my Christmas miracle.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.