A new heart for dad

Bill Peyko (bottom left) with three of his four children (clockwise from top left): Eric Peyko, Mark Peyko and Marshawn Agati at their childhood home in Campbell. Electronic image by Ron Flaviano.


I lost my mother 20 years ago. If you haven’t lost a parent or member of your immediate family, you might not understand how traumatizing that is, especially if your family is close.

Last month, my sister and brothers nearly lost our dad. Not suddenly, but slowly due to a health problem that seemed to linger and only get worse throughout fall.

Our dad is 86. For the past two decades, he has assumed the role of both mom and dad. He’s softened a bit and now treats us like part-time adults. A few years ago, he said you get to a point in your life where you just want to enjoy your children.

In the fall, things got a little uneasy. Dad was having trouble breathing and was getting winded easily. I started walking his dog before work and used the opportunity to check in with him. Then one night in mid-January, he called my sister at 2:30 in the morning and said he was having trouble breathing.

It was difficult to hear the seriousness of his condition. He had significant blockage in bypasses from two decades ago. One heart valve was malfunctioning and blood was back flowing. This forced his heart to work harder. The hospital removed a liter of fluid from one lung. Our worries were complicated by fear and frustration because the computer system at the hospital was down for two days during a critical time in our father’s life.

My siblings and I think our dad is an exceptional 86-year-old. However, we were told that his condition could only be forestalled with medication. When my sister asked the cardiac specialist why his valve was malfunctioning, she responded flatly: “because he’s old.” Later, my sister told me that the answer really angered her, but I was too numb from sleep deprivation and the stress of a newspaper deadline to absorb the insensitivity of the comment.

Nobody wants to lose a parent, but the slow-motion loss of our dad almost seemed worse. After his first bypass, my dad increased his activity. He started walking five miles every day and maintained his usual busy schedule. And two weeks before that frightening call to my sister, he was splitting wood in the back yard.

All sorts of dreadful scenarios ran through my mind. I imagined the beginning of the end. Limited mobility. A weakened heart function. Not being able to get to him in time. During the early days of his initial hospitalization, I overheard my older brother tell my brother in California that our dad had almost died. Before that, I just thought he had difficulty breathing.

We were told that medication was the only solution due to our dad’s age. When my sister interjected that he wasn’t a typical 86-year-old man, her comments were dismissed as coming from someone who had trouble facing facts. If our dad was worried, he didn’t show it.

A short while later, my brother-in-law Tony suggested we get a second opinion. At first, dad resisted. He would try medication and see how things went. In this instance, he was behaving like a man his age. And he was also the winner of the Youngstown trifecta: A pre-Vatican II Catholic in a vertically managed town who was expected to heed a doctor’s opinion. After a little cajoling, dad agreed to set an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. Tony said that if our dad felt better, he could always cancel. I just wanted to do what dad wanted and took a neutral position.

Approximately one week later, my sister called me at the office to say that dad was on his way to the Clinic. Later, she reported that his room was beautiful and he was being treated well. She also said he was joking with the nurses. Of course.

The following day, we met Dr. Kenneth McCurry, the lead heart surgeon who would assess the situation and, if possible, perform the operation. At this point, it was unclear whether that was even an option, but he would let us know. When asked if our dad’s condition could be corrected with medication, Dr. McCurry said no.

Later that afternoon, my dad had trouble doing his breathing tests at the hospital. Although he’s usually pretty quick-witted, he seemed confused and didn’t understand how to do the exercise. Repeated failed attempts didn’t reassure me. And from Thursday through Monday, we didn’t know if dad could have an operation. Or even survive it.

Although we wouldn’t know if surgery were possible for a few days, I was hopeful. Despite the seriousness of the matter, I thought my dad would rather do something bold than live a diminished life. Dr. McCurry visited my dad a few times that week and even exchanged a few jokes. The following Monday, Dr. McCurry said surgery was possible. Scraps of information filtered back to me in Youngstown.

On Monday, my sister called and said they were going to operate on Tuesday morning. So we went from not knowing if surgery were possible to knowing that it would be. I was relieved until I remembered that my dad was 86. Then surgery got rescheduled for Thursday morning. We later learned that dad got bumped because another patient was set to undergo a very difficult procedure on Tuesday and Dr. McCurry only did one operation per day. In the ensuing time, we also learned that our dad was very frightened. He didn’t tell my sister or me, but confided in one of the nurses who told us.

On Thursday, my siblings and I were at the Cleveland Clinic at 6:30 a.m. to see dad into surgery. The operation was complicated and took nearly five hours. Initially, the procedure was to include three bypasses, a heart-valve repair and a heart-valve replacement. Ultimately, the surgical team did everything but one bypass. Dad lost a lot of blood. Fortunately, Dr. McCurry is an excellent surgeon and the operation went really well.

That morning, everyone who had a family member undergoing open-heart surgery was required to attend a briefing where procedures, timelines and intensive-care recovery were explained. That lasted for about 45 minutes. One family member from each group was given a pager and an informational packet where the starting time for major surgery was penned in. The pager would notify family when major surgery had started. When our pager began vibrating, I started crying but my sister and brother couldn’t see because I was sitting in the row ahead. I also turned my head to face the wall so my friend Ron, who was sitting next to me, couldn’t see, either.

We were told that Dr. McCurry would meet with us following the operation. When he came out to talk, we already knew that our dad had made it though alright because the Clinic gave us two updates during the procedure. Still, we wanted to hear from the doctor. Toward the end of the meeting, I wanted to hug Dr. McCurry, but simply shook his hand twice and thanked him profusely.

I know my dad isn’t going to be around forever, but this wasn’t his time. And even though my dad loved my mom deeply, I knew that he wasn’t ready to see her. And I felt that she didn’t want to see him yet, either.

My dad is home now and in recovery. He smiles a lot, despite having to adhere to a new diet. He’s probably more dependent on us than he wants to be, but we know he’s going to get better with time.

I also know it’s not proper newspaper style to use courtesy titles on second reference, but Dr. McCurry deserves all the courtesies I can give him. He saved my dad.

© 2012 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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  1. Beautiful


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