Rochester, N.Y. - The heart transplant team at the University of Rochester Medical Center will celebrate a milestone later this week, when it discharges the first upstate New York recipient of an artificial heart. That patient is Gates Orlando, familiar to many in Rochester as a star player for the Amerks in the 1980s and later as a player in both the NHL and Europe.
But on the transplant unit he's better known as a cheerleader, motivational speaker and card player. Orlando gave support to other patients on the transplant list, much as previous heart transplant recipients had encouraged him when he first arrived.
The card playing? It was a weekly event among the patients awaiting a new heart. The gambling was secondary to the good conversation, and deep understanding among friends with a common goal - a new heart for a new chance at life.
Orlando was diagnosed several years ago with a rare form of heart failure. Last April, the disease had progressed to the point where doctors had to implant a total artificial heart, a first for the doctors in the URMC Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation. This former Olympian would spend most of the next ten months in the hospital, anticipating a heart transplant once he was healthy enough. On February 4, a donor heart became available, and Orlando underwent successful transplant surgery.
"My donor, I pray for him every night. I know he probably saved more than one life," Orlando said Wednesday, during an exclusive interview with 13WHAM News.
In all of his years as a professional hockey player, there was no victory that can compare to what Orlando will do on Friday, when he will walk out of Strong Memorial Hospital. The last time he was able to enjoy time at his home in Victor was for about a month last summer, when he tried out a portable unit to power his implanted artificial heart. In the end, Orlando felt the burden on his family was too much, and decided he would be more comfortable back at the hospital.
Of the long wait for a donor heart, Orlando said, "I would say that you have to have faith. You have to put your work in. And you have to believe that your day's going to come." When that day finally did come, it all happened in a hurry.
"They came in the morning," Orlando said. "It was the day after the Super Bowl. When I went to the intensive care unit and started prepping me I thought this was getting closer. And it still hasn't really sunk in that I have a new heart."
But he does, and while he'll be a heart patient for the rest of his life, doctors say he can look forward to living a pretty normal life. He says he most looks forward to spending time with his children, including being there for pictures before his daughter heads off to her Junior Prom this spring. Orlando also plans to get back to work as a scout for the NHL's New Jersey Devils, an organization he says has been extremely supportive through all his medical ups and downs.
Orlando also has gratitude for the doctors, nurses and other members of the transplant team that cared for him at the U of R Medical Center. And he's made it a personal mission to help them, by helping spread the word about the need for organ donors.
"You don't necessarily have to go to the DMV," he said. "You just tell someone you want to be a donor. I think it should be in schools. It should be a dinnertime conversation."
Becoming a donor can be as simple as telling loved ones of your wishes, as they are the ones most likely to be asked the question in an end-of-life situation.
The heart now beating in Gates Orlando's chest doesn't come with cords, batteries, and gauges like the one that kept him alive for ten months. He will soon be free to go wherever that new heart leads him, likely a rink somewhere as he scouts for NHL talent. And he's certain to make frequent visits back to the transplant unit, for one of those card games.
More information about signing up as a donor is available at www.donorrecovery.org