Niagara Gazette

October 2, 2013

Wheatfield's Tim Synor comes home with a new heart

By Ed Adamczyk lifestyle@ggnewspaper.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The otherwise fortunate Tim Synor of the Town of Wheatfield is recovering nicely after experiencing a deteriorating heart and receiving a heart transplant, and wants you to know about organ donor awareness, but that’s the happy ending to a harrowing story. 

Envision a man, 47, whose enviable life includes wife, family, home and career, healthy except that a flu-borne virus from nine years ago is attacking his heart’s left ventricle and he’s on his way to heart failure. Non-ischemic viral cardiomyopathy, it’s called.

“No one ever told me heart failure is progressive,” he recalls. 

“He was okay, with medication, and was pretty good until last August”, said his wife Cathie. “He lost weight, got so sick.”

Two weeks after baby Caitlyn was born in January, joining her big brother Nathan, now 2, a long hospital stay began for Synor, with the enervating brutality that came from each step in receiving a new heart.

There was waiting, months of it, at the University of Rochester Medical Center (also referred to as Strong Memorial Hospital). There was sickness, lots of it, and testing and medication. There was a balancing act of striving to remain in a curious window of opportunity, sick enough to require a new heart but healthy enough to survive the surgery. There was one visit per week from his family, including his newborn, somehow both motivating and, well, heartbreaking. There was wondering if this was the day he died, or if it’s the day he’s saved.

His hospital room had a view of Mercy Flight’s helicopters, arriving on and departing from the roof, and with every landing Synor wondered if the helicopter had a package for him.

“A race to the finish”, he now casually says.

“Five months” of it, said Cathie. “Some days he was good, some days he wasn’t.”

“When I first saw him he was a very sick man,” said University of Rochester Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Jeffrey Alexis. “He had lost a lot of weight.” 

His defibrillator, there to automatically deliver a therapeutic blast of electricity to the heart and restore a normal heartbeat, activated four times one day.

The following day, a Sunday morning in July, he was informed a donor heart had been located. Surgery, led by Dr. Todd Massey, proceeded that evening.

As is the case in transplantation, Synor only knows his new heart was formerly in someone younger than he. Name, age, male or female, any other circumstances, remain a secret to him. Now it’s on to pursue a life of normalcy.

A graduate of North Tonawanda High School and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Synor’s marketing and graphic design business was put on hold to accommodate this adventure. Moving slowly at home, in a toy-strewn living room and surrounded by his loving family, he sits under a banner reading “Welcome Home Daddy” on the day after he tried driving for the first time in months and tells his story the way a Super Bowl-winning quarterback does, starting with gratitude.

“The staff, the people there (at the University of Rochester Medical Center) are wonderful. It got to be like a fraternity,” he said, mentioning friends he met, including patients Paulette Welker of Tonawanda, who had a heart transplant in August, and Tim Day of Kenmore, who awaits a transplant after a left ventricular assistance device was installed in his chest in June.

“It’s a first-class facility, from the surgeons to the parking lot attendants. You notice it as a visitor,” added Cathie, who when not working as a mommy or caretaker of a heart transplant recipient, is an assistant clerk in Niagara County government. 

He also expressed his appreciation of family, neighbors and friends, the people who mowed his lawn and offered support to the family.

“I believe in the prayers we were given,” Cathie said. “We’re so thankful for all the support from families.”

“Something came through at the end for me,” Tim said. “Guardian angels are looking after me.”

Then there is the recovery. As the foot-long scar on his chest will attest for the rest of his life, Synor’s story is not over.

“The doctors are impressed” with his progress, he said, “exactly what they want to see.” 

His regular visits back to Rochester are now a standard part of his life, as are 20 pills a day, down from 36, of “low-dose anti-rejection” medication. 

Statistics back up his progress. His “ejection fraction,” the volume of blood pumped from the left ventricle, is now at 70 percent, he says. Normal is 55 percent; his was formerly 7 percent.

A keepsake of his experience is a heart-shaped pillow, now on his living room couch, sewn by hospital volunteers. It looks more like a Valentine gift than a therapeutic tool, but it gave him something to hold while sitting in the preferred arms-crossed position in the hospital. 

As could be expected, Tim has become an advocate for organ donation.

“Register to become an organ donor. Save a precious life,” he implores, acknowledging some people find it harder than others to agree to the after-death surrender of hearts, lungs and the like, and therein lays a story. 

While Tim was in Rochester, the Rochester Americans hockey club presented a night of organ donor awareness, featuring former Buffalo Sabres player Gaetano “Gates” Orlando, who now lives with an artificial heart. Many fans signed up; others, Tim says, seemed repelled by the whole idea.

Visit www.urmc.rochester.edu for details on organ donation.

Plenty of people wish they could hit life’s reset button, bringing with them the positive things and excising that which is not properly working, but not like this. Tim has that incision mark on his chest as a souvenir, a new heart still accommodating itself in a spot where an oversized and diseased one formerly resided, and two birthdays to celebrate, his usual one in September and July 7, the day his life started over.

Tim’s friends will present a benefit for him on the afternoon of Oct. 20 at the American Legion Sikora Post on Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda. See facebook.com/benefitfortimsynor for information.