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Authors: Pat LaFontaine,Ernie Valutis,Chas Griffin,Larry Weisman

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BOOK: Companions in Courage
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As expectant parents, Tracy and Joe Simonick waited for the day of their baby’s birth with the usual aspirations and plans
and the same worries as any other couple. Parents-to-be always joke about counting fingers and toes, but that nervous jest
belies an anxiety. On December 28, 1992, little Joey arrived at Children’s Hospital and joy and excitement washed away in
a tide of devastation. Two words— “birth defect”—and lives are changed forever.

“We were in shock,” Tracy says as she remembers the conference with the medical staff. “Joey and I were told immediately by
the cardiologists and cardiac surgeons that little Joey was born without a left ventricle to push the blood to the rest of
his body.”

The condition, known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, results in reduced blood circulation due to the absence of the ventricle.
This left little time for cuddling and bonding with their newborn; decisions that would affect the quality and duration of
a baby’s life eclipsed any happy talk. Instead of pleasure, the parents faced unending pressure.

I know the anxious feelings Marybeth and I experience when one of our kids is sick. The mind can wander to so many “what ifs”
and unpleasant possibilities. Fear can grow and confusion take charge. So I can hardly contemplate Tracy and Joe’s struggles
with the choices they had to make.

The doctor laid out the road map for the anxious couple. They could do nothing and simply let Joey’s body fail. They could
try surgery, through a series of operations called the Norwood procedure. That program would use what was available of their
son’s heart and create new channels to bypass the left ventricle and keep blood flowing to the rest of the body. This would
save his life, the doctor told them, but leave him fragile and probably disabled. Lastly, they could register and wait for
a heart transplant.

Choices. How do people reach deep inside and find a way to do what’s right, to save not only their baby’s life but his potential
for really living?

“We did a lot of crying but we decided to agree to try for a heart transplant and keep the operations as a last option,” Tracy
says. “Because of the kind of people we are, we wanted Joey to have a good quality of life.”

Little baby Joey, just four days old, took up residence at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on New Year’s Eve.
His parents moved into the Ronald McDonald House just across the street. Thus began three months of emotional crests and crashes,
a boiling pot of tension, hope, prayer, and fears. Each night the Simonicks fretted about whether their son would survive
to the next day and long enough to receive a new heart.

They would arrive at the hospital each morning and stay until the nurses gently shooed them out. “The most painful thing was
waking up in the morning and calling the nurses to see if Joey lived through the night,” Tracy says. “I just couldn’t call.
Joe had to do it.”

Their visits with little Joey wrung every drop of emotion from them. “Joe would go right down to the intensive care unit to
be alone with his son. He would bathe him, change his diaper, and cradle him in his arms and just cry,” Tracy says.

Joe never pictured himself as one who let his inner feelings escape. At least he never had before. In the quiet times, when
he sat and held his baby boy, he discovered something new. “I’m not one to wear my feelings on my sleeve, but this was different,”
he says. “In case we lost him, I just wanted to connect as much as I could.”

As her husband established these bonds with his son, Tracy found herself relying on the memory of her father.

Her dad had died three months before she and Joe married, but now she found herself asking him to protect his grandson.

The passage of time allowed Tracy and Joe to establish their day-to-day activities as more than ritual. This was their life.
Their positive attitude, faith, love for their son, and weekend visits from family elevated their morale. They looked to create
an upbeat atmosphere and minimize the daily tension. With the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, the Simonicks would dress Joey
in Bills gear while the hospital staff, mostly Steelers fans, countered with their own team’s shirts. The fun helped.

As they waited for a heart to become available, Tracy and Joe began to establish mental markers for certain dates. January
14 was the anniversary of her father’s death, and they hoped that it would be their lucky day. But it came and went. So they
focused on Valentine’s Day, which they knew would be perfect for a new heart.

The dates came and raised their hopes, then passed and left them crushed. Then finally the word they had awaited came on February
17, and it mixed someone else’s pain with their great hopes. An infant in New Jersey had died and the heart had been donated.
Joey was quickly prepared for surgery.

They remember the mixed feelings, the sadness for the parents who had just lost their child. But they could not contain their
own ecstasy. The operation was a success.

That’s not the end of the story. Stories like these never end. Nor do the battles. Joey continues to suffer from the effects
of a suppressed immune system. He faced death at his first birthday.

“Sometimes it seems like the transplant was the easy part,” Tracy says. “Being on a respirator for three weeks at one year
old and always fearing pneumonia or head injury was more difficult.”

But Joey began to grow—in size, strength, and vigor. The Simonicks laced on his first pair of ice skates when he was eighteen
months old, and he soon developed a love for hockey. When he was two, a brother, Trevor, joined the family—born healthy.

Joe won’t ever forget Joey’s first attempts to glide on the ice, helped along by a walker. “Once again I was full of emotion,”
he says. “After all the little guy had been through, there he was, skating. I was touched, proud, and so happy.”

Fear never went totally away. When Joey fell on the ice and his helmet slipped down and cut him, both parents panicked. But
they stopped the bleeding and Joey shrugged it off. His father smiled and thought, “His first hockey scar.”

The boy born without enough of a heart has showed nothing but heart ever since. In 1998 he participated in the Transplant
Games at Ohio State University, a nationwide competition that features athletes who are transplant recipients. Joey carried
the Team Western New York banner into the stadium and won a bronze medal in swimming.

Today, at seven years old, this perfectly normal second-grader skates with the Buffalo Regals mite-level hockey team. His
career has hardly started, but he already has a highlight: a two-goal performance in leading his team to a victory.

Tracy and Joe volunteer with the Children’s Hospital cardiology unit and serve in TRIO (Transplant Recipients International
Organization) and the National Kidney Foundation. They’ll talk to anyone anywhere about what they went through.

They know how much they owe to organ donor programs, and Tracy grows wistful when she thinks about her father’s passing. “The
donor organization asked about our willingness to make my father’s organs available. I was resentful and felt they were insensitive
to what we were going through,” she says. “Now I understand completely.”

7
Chris Zorich

I
f there is such a thing as a recipe for a troubled life, Chris Zorich had all the ingredients. Start with growing up in a
four-room apartment at 81st and Burnham, one of the worst neighborhoods in the South Side of Chicago. Stir in an unwed mother
and a disappearing father. Add the seasonings of drugs and gangs, life on public assistance, ridicule by bullies because of
a white mother and a black father, and the picture seems bleaker still. Top it all off with a huge dose of poverty. Chris
remembers being so hungry he would rummage through Dumpsters for scraps.

“There were times the refrigerator was bare,” he says. “Sometimes we had macaroni and cheese for lunch and dinner three days
in a row.”

Other days they would wait in long lines for their only hot meal. There was a towel stuffed in the front window to keep out
the cold. The action outside was continuous, with drug deals, car vandalizing, hookers, and winos always a part of the scene.
“The apartment was burglarized six times,” he says, “and I once had a loaded gun pointed in my face.”

The difference in this mixture of potential disaster was the cook, Chris’s mother. Zora Zorich handled the adversity with
a deep sense of dignity and love for her son and others. Behind the walls of this barren environment the loving arms and firm
hand of an amazing woman of Yugoslavian descent balanced the hate and violence with a special brand of love and encouragement.
When Chris was very young she would read to him from Raggedy Ann and Dr. Seuss. Books were everywhere, and she often spoke
of her favorite,
The Art of Loving
by Erich Fromm. Although she suffered from diabetes and was too ill to work at a full-time job, Zora committed herself to
teaching Chris to do his best and to care for those who were less fortunate. “She was a great neighbor and was always there
to help others,” he says. “For example, she only had a bike, but she would pick up groceries for the elderly neighbors and
distribute them. She was a great neighbor and just a wonderful, caring individual.” Chris’s childhood was wrapped in her courage
and love.

Initially, Chris’s mom was adamant about his not playing football. When he entered Chicago Vocational High School, he desperately
wanted to try out for the team. Zora remained firm. “She wouldn’t sign the consent form,” Chris says. “I begged and begged,
but she didn’t want her baby to get hurt.”

In his sophomore year he did the unthinkable—he forged her name and joined the team. When she finally discovered his ploy,
“I told her it was midseason and I didn’t want to let the team down, so she let me play.”

A scholarship took him to the University of Notre Dame, just an hour and forty-five minutes from his home. When Chris arrived
on campus, he had to fill out some papers that asked about his family. He wrote, “There’s only my mom, and she’s the best
thing that ever happened.”

While at Notre Dame he earned the Lombardi Award for the nation’s best lineman. Chris capped his career with an outstanding
performance in the 1991 Orange Bowl. While the 10–9 loss to the University of Colorado was heartbreaking, his ten tackles
earned him the NBC Sports Award as the game’s outstanding player for the Fighting Irish. “I played the best I ever played,”
he remembers. “But I didn’t know why until I got home.”

When he arrived in Chicago to see his mom, she did not respond to his knocks on the door of their apartment. It didn’t take
much for the 270-pound lineman to break down the door, only to find Zora prone on the floor. “She was just lying there and
I knew she was dead. I didn’t freak out. I just gave a kiss on the lips and said, ‘Bye, Mom.’” He added, “Now she can watch
over me as my guardian angel.”

Chris went on to play for the Chicago Bears and established himself as a generous and loving force for good in the community.
He established the Christopher Zorich Foundation to assist those in need. The programs include Care to Share family food distribution;
the Love Grows Here Mother’s Day program, which distributes flowers and cosmetics to homeless shelters; and the Zora Zorich
Scholarship at Notre Dame. Chris takes kids to sporting events, amusement parks, and even to the opera. He answers the phones
and helps make deliveries of groceries to the shelters. Memories drive him, memories of Zora and of something else.

“I remember,” he says. “I remember what it was like to not have food.”

8
Nick Watroba

L
arry Watroba knew the sounds of war and the stink of death. He wanted to forget them, bury them as he had buried so many friends
and comrades in arms.

Vietnam. Hey, someone had to go. Larry’s job was picking up the wounded and the dead behind enemy lines, the helicopters’
whoop-whoop-whoop
just overhead as he collected what remained of American soldiers.

So the birth of his son after his return to South Buffalo, New York, should have been a good thing, a blessing, an easing
in his mind. How horrible that he should pass his fear along to his son when his anguished late-night cries, churning out
of the memories of that hellish war, woke the little boy and created so much more pain.

As if pain were in short supply for little Nick and his mother, Sandy.

Excited as she was to be a mom, Sandy couldn’t help feeling something wasn’t quite right with her baby. She wondered about
her son’s inability to sleep well. As a registered nurse, she had reason to be skeptical when doctors said Nick was just fussy.
Her concern was confirmed when Nick’s doctor, Peter Dishek, told her the soft spot on Nick’s head was too full and that his
head size was off the chart.

After a CT scan, a pediatric neurosurgeon delivered the news: “Your son has communicating hydrocephalus due to a forceps injury
during birth. His condition is life-threatening.” Sandy almost fainted, and Larry wanted to run.

The doctor carefully outlined their options—insert a shunt in the baby’s head to drain excess fluid into his abdomen, or risk
letting the body compensate on its own, with the hope that the production of spinal fluid would decrease. He explained that
a shunt is a lifetime commitment and usually shortens one’s life span. The decision needed to be made soon or Nick could suffer
seizures, neurological loss, or death. He finished his assessment by saying, “I don’t know of any case where the body has
compensated on its own, but I know it can.”

The Watrobas were in shock when they left the doctor’s office, and they tried mightily to cope. Larry battled an old temptation
to drink. Sandy went to church. After lengthy, loud discussions and some prayer, they took a courageous step—no shunt. They
decided they would risk Nick’s not getting well rather than see him handicapped. It was a tense time, and the pressure sent
Larry on flashbacks to ’Nam, gave him nightmares that caused him to wake up screaming.

BOOK: Companions in Courage
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