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Sean Kirst: Beating heart of a retired Buffalo K-9 officer, the 'miracle man'

Eileen O'Rourk-Yesis answered the phone Sunday and gave me a quick update. I was calling about her grandfather, John O'Rourk, a retired Buffalo K-9 officer who's recovering from bypass surgery.

O'Rourk-Yesis offered a few reflections, then said goodbye and gave it some more thought. What she had shared with me, she realized, was absolutely true.

It just didn't tell the whole story.

Late that night, she fired off a long email.

She wanted to do justice to a guy she calls the "miracle man."

O'Rourk, 76, went through the heart procedure last month. It prevented him from attending the funeral of Craig Lehner, 34, a fellow K-9 officer who died in a diving tragedy in the Niagara River.

The two never met. Before the surgery, I wrote a column about O'Rourk. He spoke of his deep sense of kinship with Lehner, despite a 42-year difference in age.

O'Rourk knew what it was like to stay late at the Louisiana Street training complex, working with your dog.

He knew the feeling of long midnight patrols, the communion forged with a partner when you're standing together on a front porch, knocking on a stranger's door, while angry voices shout back and forth inside.

O'Rourk helped rescue motorists trapped in their cars, during the Blizzard of 1977. He was honored for heroism after he and his partner, George Smith, saved a young woman trying to flee a burning apartment.

That kind of experience, O'Rourk said, bridges generations. Despite technical change, despite a digital revolution, it's why an officer who joined the force decades ago appreciates what young officers confront today.

"It's a damn shame," O'Rourk said of Lehner, his voice cracking.

Sean Kirst: Retired K-9 officer bound to Craig Lehner, at heart

Yet O'Rourk had been feeling pain and pressure on his chest, signaling the return of problems that caused a massive heart attack 18 years ago. When it happened, O'Rourk-Yesis recalled, doctors twice needed a defibrillator to cause O'Rourk's heart to start beating again. He endured 11 days in an induced coma, and bypass surgery was seen as too much of a risk.

This time, in the same week as Lehner's funeral, the specialists felt they had to take that chance.

O'Rourk spent four hours on the operating table at Gates Vascular Institute. He needed six bypasses to repair his heart.

Within four hours of coming out of anesthesia, he said, he was able to stand up. Less than 10 days after surgery, he already had left the house to play cards and eat dinner at the home of another granddaughter, Heather O'Rourk-Pappa.

"I'm feeling good," O'Rourk said this week.

He said his wife, Pat, and the rest of his family are "taking good care of me."

Sean Kirst: Retired K-9 officer bound to Craig Lehner, at heart

John O'Rourk, a retired Buffalo Police officer who was on the force for 27 years, stands last year at the ramp from Tifft Street to the Skyway where - during the Blizzard of '77 - he helped rescue dozens of motorists, stranded in their cars. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

As part of writing a column on his condition, I called O'Rourk-Yesis. She spoke with passion of her grandfather's courage.

"He's amazing," O'Rourk-Yesis said. "He's braver than anyone I've ever met. He's always calm and composed. I was with him last week, before the surgery, and before I left he took a shower and came out and gave me a hug, like he was going to the car wash."

Then she put down the phone and thought of what the guy means to her family. She sent me this note, which captures everything and is the best way to end this column:

Hello. I hope I'm not bothering you. I wanted to first say thank you for all the time and effort you put in to telling my Grandpa's story.  With that, after I hung up with you, all I could think of was I should have said and why didn't I say.

It's nearly impossible to find words to describe someone that you love so much. He's so much, not just to me, but our family. He's strong,  brave, a fighter, a provider, our rock. He's funny, caring, loyal, and respected.

He's also the guy who finishes the vegetables at dinner so I as a child didn't have to eat them, the one who lets you pick whatever you want at the store,  the guy who reassures you everything is OK just by being in the room, the guy who plays cars with his great-grandchildren on the floor and is excited to do so.

He's the guy who is the best friend to his children and loves spending time with them. He's the guy who would give you the shirt off his back, puts everyone else first, and never asks for a thing in return.

He's the guy I've always looked up to. He's the guy who still tells police stories with a proud smile on his face, who proudly wears his BPD attire, and meets regularly with his family in blue. The guy who I've never heard complain about his health issues or the impact it's had on his life.

He's the guy who wakes up from surgery making jokes and telling the nurses he's on vacation.

He's so much to our family, I could never explain him. He's my Grandpa, our Miracle Man (for the second time), my Superhero!

I hope this helps paint a picture of who he is to us.


Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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