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For two transplant recipients, support and timing are at the heart of friendship

Frank Pluta and Jerry Galuszka liken their heart transplants to daunting, frightening journeys.

But along the way they reaped an unexpected reward.

They forged a friendship through their shared medical emergencies.

Their story is one of coincidences.

Pluta was a muscular 52-year-old scale technician in the fall of 2010 when he suffered a massive heart attack at his Hamburg home.

Galuszka, a West Seneca resident who’s now 64 years old, was working at Northtown Toyota one day in 2012 when suddenly he could barely breathe.

Before long, both men would be put on the waiting list for new hearts.

And so began their waits for a donor.

Heart pumps kept both men alive as they waited.

The two men first met after their wives, looking for support from others going through the same experience, connected with each other on Facebook. Frank and Nancy Pluta had dinner in the fall of 2013 at the home of Jerry and Karen Galuszka. After helping form a support group for others, the friendship between the two men deepened as they waited their turns in the organ donation system.

Then came the memorable November day at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital.

Frank and Nancy Pluta showed up at the hospital for a transplant Frank had waited five years to get. As they walked into the intensive-care unit, past one of the rooms, they were startled to see Jerry and Karen Galuszka.

“Karen called out, ‘Oh, my God! It’s you guys,’ ” Nancy Pluta recalled. “We were in total disbelief.”

The two suburban Buffalo men who had become friends received their new hearts within six days of each other at the Rochester hospital. They spent the following weeks recuperating together.

An unexpected attack

Pluta suffered a massive heart attack at home in the fall of 2010 that took him by surprise.

He worked as a scale technician for Root, Neal & Co., the 110-year-old Buffalo industrial supply company. Two days beforehand, he was exercising on a treadmill in preparation for hiking the hills in deer hunting season.

“It came without warning, hit me and down I went,” Pluta said.

Doctors tried to restore blood flow to his heart with stents. It didn’t work, so he underwent a procedure known by an acronym, ECMO, short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. This advanced life support entails being attached to a device that takes over the work of the heart and lungs in patients with severe respiratory or cardiac failure.

ECMO served as a temporary fix until a procedure in Rochester to implant a left ventricular assist device in his ailing heart. The small, battery-operated mechanical pump – most people refer to it as an LVAD – helps the heart do its job by sending blood into the aorta.

Some patients, often those ineligible for a heart transplant, use the portable pump for months or years until the end of their lives. Others, like Pluta and Galuszka, used them as a life-saving bridge to a transplant.

“It took me time to accept the consequences of a transplant – having my immune system knocked down, depending on anti-infection drugs, going through the big surgery, needing someone to die for me to live,” Pluta said.

“As time went on, my family made me realize that a transplant would give me the longest longevity,” he said.

Unable to breathe

Galuszka specialized in collision work for Northtown Toyota for 30 years and then spent five years in corporate maintenance for the auto dealer, doing everything from painting to building cabinets. He was at work in 2012 when suddenly he could barely breathe.

He called his wife, who rushed him to an emergency room, where the initial thought was pneumonia.

After weeks of tests, he received a far more serious diagnosis. Galuszka suffered from congestive heart failure and ischemic cardiomyopathy. The heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, was enlarged and weak, causing a lack of blood supply to the heart muscle.

He also needed a heart pump and ended up at Strong Memorial, the only heart transplant center in upstate New York.

The diagnosis didn’t take either Galuszka or his wife completely by surprise.

“Jerry is a guy who never stopped working, even when he did not feel well. There was nothing detected earlier in his life,” Karen said. “But there is a history of heart problems in his family – a sister, a brother, his father.”

A support group

The heart pump both men used at first is a medical marvel – yet life-changing in many ways. Think about sleeping and showering. The device also needs regular maintenance to prevent infections and any chance of interrupted power.

The device sits near the left ventricle of the heart. A cable extends through the skin, and connects the pump to a controller and power source that the patients have strapped on the outside of their bodies.

“There were bumps in the road for us, a lot of trips to the hospital for bleeds and infections. It can crimp your style and get you down if you let it,” Karen Galuszka said.

Wanting to talk to others in the Buffalo area going through the same experience, she reached out on Facebook. Nancy Pluta, looking for much the same, responded to one of her messages.

“The caregivers are the ones who make the connections,” Karen Galuszka said.

The wives messaged back and forth, and eventually arranged a meeting of the two couples at the Galuszka home for a potluck dinner. They and others they connected with on Facebook formed a support group known as the LVAD Warrior Misfits.

Racing the clock

The first call to the Galuszkas came at 9:40 a.m. Oct. 9. They jumped into the car and made Rochester by 12:30 p.m. But the donor organ turned out to be damaged.

The next call came at 10:19 p.m. Nov. 19. Jerry Galuszka motioned to his wife to start packing while he was on the telephone, and the couple arrived at the hospital at 1:30 a.m. Dr. Juan Lehoux, the transplant surgeon, and his team wheeled Jerry into the operating room at noon Nov. 20 and wheeled him out at midnight with a new heart.

What took so long? A heart transplant is a complicated procedure that takes at least four hours to perform. The longer the device is in a heart, the harder it can be to “hack it out,” said Dr. Leway Chen, director of the University of Rochester Medicine’s Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation at Strong Memorial Hospital. “The device can get incased.”

In Pluta’s case, he had just returned home from deer hunting when the phone rang at 6:39 p.m. Nov. 25. It was the hospital. Finally, there was a heart for him. He and Nancy forgot about Thanksgiving preparations and headed to Rochester.

Early the next morning, Pluta made his way into the operating room, and Lehoux’s surgical team gave him a new heart.

The transplant center has performed 15 of the procedures this year. The program currently follows 157 people on heart pumps, about one-third in the Buffalo area, who are waiting for transplants or intend to live with he pumps.

The long waits by the two men underscore the crisis in organ transplantation, with a growing gap between the supply and demand for organs. New Yorkers are among the least likely in the country to register as organ donors. On average, 22 Americans die each day while waiting for a transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit organization that coordinates donations under contract to the federal government.

Pluta and Galuszka faced that fate.

“A lot had to go right to have them survive,” Chen said. “They were supported. There was rapid transfer to the hospital. It’s fairly unusual considering how long they waited.”

The thumbs up sign

After the transplants, the patients stayed in the ICU until they were well enough for transfer to a step-down unit in the hospital. They recovered in rooms next to each other but didn’t interact much, although their wives often talked.

Galuszka was weak and unable to walk. Visits were limited because of concerns about infection.

On one occasion, Pluta, who recuperated more quickly and liked to stroll the hallway wearing a mask for exercise, visited Galuszka’s bedside for a short time. Otherwise, he would pass by Galuszka’s room, peer through a window in the door and give him a “thumbs up” sign.

“I talked with Karen all the time, but the guys couldn’t do things together,” said Nancy Pluta. “Jerry had a rougher go of it with infections. We wanted to be careful.”

For recipients, a transplant often elicits feelings of guilt and gratitude.

“It’s much more of an emotional roller coaster than I thought it would be,” said Frank Pluta, who returned home last weekend.

“Listening to my heart beating for the first time was very tough. You know someone else is grieving,” he said.

Jerry Galuszka called it “a strange but happy feeling.”

“It’s a blessing and always will be, but you feel bad for the donor family,” he said. “You think about them missing a loved one, but you find peace in knowing their selflessness helped another to live.”

Galuszka remains in hospital. He suffered a setback and returned to intensive care.

His lungs are inflamed and collecting fluid, probably from an infection. Karen Galuszka said physicians seem to be zeroing in on the problem.

“Jerry’s immune-system is suppressed, so he’s vulnerable,” she said. “But he’s a fighter. I won’t let him give up.”

Plans for a trip

A heart transplant is one of the most expensive medical procedures, costing about $1.2 million, including care and drugs after discharge. Last year, doctors performed 2,655 heart transplants in the United States.

Life expectancy has improved since the first successful transplant in 1967 in South Africa. Today, the five-year survival rate is 75 percent. Recipients must take drugs for the rest of their lives that suppress their immune systems. Otherwise, the body would view the new organ as foreign and reject it.

Still, life can return to something resembling normal.

One plan in the works for the Plutas and Galuszkas is to meet in Myrtle Beach once the men regain their strength.

“Nothing scheduled yet,” said Frank Pluta. “But I know it’s going to be fun.”