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Heart To Heart: A Fast Friendship Is Born In The Transplant Unit

New friends with something in common, Corinne Gammino (seated left) and Kathleen Shafer bonded when both received new hearts. Here they're seen with (from left) Alan L. Gass, M.D. and nurse practitioners Maureen Raffa, R.N. and Kathy Brown, R.N.
New friends with something in common, Corinne Gammino (seated left) and Kathleen Shafer bonded when both received new hearts. Here they're seen with (from left) Alan L. Gass, M.D. and nurse practitioners Maureen Raffa, R.N. and Kathy Brown, R.N. Photo Credit: Contributed

“When you're with a friend who makes your heart feel good, your body will often follow suit." -- Alan L. Gass, M.D.

Heart transplant units are typically places where very sick people go to wait, hopeful that an organ will become available in time to save their lives. But for two recent Westchester Medical Center patients, such a unit became the birthplace of a close friendship that helped two women heal.

Monroe resident Corinne Gammino was admitted to the Medical Center first, following years of suffering caused by congestive heart failure. At 65, she had been told by a doctor that she was too old for a transplant. Recurrent episodes of heart failure requiring frequent support on a ventilator became her painful norm, until her research finally led to Alan L. Gass, M.D., Medical Director of Cardiac Transplantation at Westchester Medical Center. His tests revealed that she was, in fact, a viable transplant candidate, so he added her name to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) list on June 13, 2013. Gammino was 70 years old.

As there is no way to predict when a heart will become available, time spent waiting can range from several weeks to many months. “Compatible blood type and body weight are the two main factors used to determine an ideal match,” explains Dr. Gass. For many this can feel discouraging, but Gammino was grateful that action was finally being taken. “I know deep down that I wouldn’t have survived another cardiac attack,” she says.

Five weeks later, 65-year-old Newburgh resident Kathleen Shafer found herself in Dr. Gass’ office, complaining of extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. He performed an echocardiogram and other tests, and they showed that her advanced heart failure required hospitalization and evaluation for a heart transplant. Shafer was feeling more anxious than Gammino had.

“Kathleen was in denial when she first arrived at Westchester Medical Center,” recalls transplant coordinator Kathy Brown, R.N., a nurse practitioner. “Though her family understood she needed surgery, she kept asking them to take her home.” Instead, Brown took her to Gammino, who had by now been nicknamed the unit’s “cruise director.” A flurry of positive energy, she was known for organizing support groups and bingo games. The two started talking –and a tight kinship began to form.

Gammino and Shafer were the only women waiting on the fifth floor in the heart transplant unit – along with eight men. “Ladies like to gab in a way men don’t understand,” jokes Brown. “After meeting, Corinne and Kathleen were either constantly giggling or engaged in heart-to-hearts.” Close in age, they shared a passion for crocheting. Both widows, they swapped joyful tales of their broods of children and grandchildren. Time passed quickly until August 20, when Gammino had her surgery. Shafer received her new ticker just three days later.

“A heart transplant procedure can take from two to 12 hours, depending on the severity of the case,” Dr. Gass reveals. “These operations both skewed on the shorter end of that spectrum, as they were relatively complication-free.”

Recover time was another chance to bond, not only with each other, but with many of the other patients as well. Westchester Medical Center is the second-busiest transplant program in New York State, so there were several other patients on the floor who were waiting for transplants.

“I organized meetings in the lounge to talk about what we were experiencing,” Gammino recalls. “At first, Kathleen wasn’t feeling well. But I said, “Come on, it’s just down the hall – see if you like it!”

“We became one another’s cheerleaders,” says Shafer. “If Corinne was in pain I’d cheer her up, and when I moaned she’d comfort me.” The two compared bruises and scars, teasing about whose looked more horrific, and shared merry midnight snacks. Asked by her eldest daughter what meal she missed most, Shafer requested spaghetti and meatballs. When a tray of low-fat, sodium free pasta arrived the following evening, the pair inhaled it. “Every bite was precious, because each one tasted better than any meal we’d eaten before,” says Shafer.

Now back home and returned to lives of independence, both women are recovering remarkably. Dr. Gass believes this is due in large part to the restorative power of their extraordinary rapport. He’s a firm believer in the mind-body connection, especially when it comes to the heart. “When you’re with a friend who makes your heart feel good, your body will often follow suit,” he says.

These days the two women chat on the phone several times a week, and keep up with their crocheting. Gammino has stitched scarves for everyone she knows and Shafer is in the process of quilting special blankets for her nine grandkids. “I started this project years ago, and for a while feared I’d never finish,” she confides. “Now I have only two left to complete.”

The two former patients also “pay it forward,” bringing hope to patients at the hospital who are awaiting transplants of their own. “We tell them to be strong, because their new lives will start soon,” says Gammino. “I’m now truly in renewed awe of every moment.”

For more information about heart transplants at Westchester Medical Center please call 877-WMC-DOCS or visit www.westchestermedicalcenter.com.