By Michele DeLuca
NIAGARA FALLS —
Joe Martino has always been tough a guy. You can tell he takes some pride in that. But, last February, he had a change of heart.
After spending nearly a year in Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, waiting for someone to die so that he could live, he finally got what he needed. A young man was killed in a car crash and Joe received the most precious gift one human can give to another, a healthy, beating heart.
Prior to that, his 365 tedious days in the hospital were brightened by the weekly poker games he played with six other guys also waiting to be dealt a heart. Sadly, since fate is the same in cards as in life, only a couple of the guys got what they needed. The others were not so lucky.
For some reason, Joe Martino lived. He’s now 67, and it’s been a year since they put that young man’s heart into his empty chest.
Now, the former street-smart kid is using all those tough guy skills so he can live a few more decades with his high school sweetheart, Barbara and maybe spend some more time with his three grandkids. Joe and Barbara still live in the same 104th Street home where they raised their son, David, now a business manager, and daughter, Joelle, a Gaskill 8th grade teacher. Joe never thought his life would turn out this way when he was growing up on Pine and 24th, son to the owners of a Niagara Falls Boulevard motel, the Driftwood. But, at 55-years-old, while hunting for antique cars in Florida, his heart started to give out. “He went for an angiogram and never came out of the hospital,” his wife, Barbara recalls. He had five blockages in his heart, and the damaged heart muscle just kept getting weaker.
Soon, there was nothing his cardiologist could do but send him to Strong to wait for a heart donor. In a hospital gown for far more days than he could ever have imagined, he was pretty miserable to everyone there for the first couple of months.
At one point, Joe decided to die. A buddy from the Falls, a tough guy himself, told Joe to talk to God. But, maybe because he had never turned his eyes upward before, or maybe because tough guys don’t ask for help, Martino just couldn’t do that. His friend persisted.
They were taking a slow walk around the nurses station one day, when Joe finally decided to give it a try. Silently, to himself, he said the Lord’s Prayer, the words presenting themselves from somewhere within the memories of his youth.
As gestures of faith go, it was no big deal. But, somehow, when that walk was over, Joe didn’t want to die anymore.
So, he and his poker playing buddies carried on with their games, where they soon got in trouble for ordering-in lunch meat and salami and other fatty foods completely inappropriate for heart patients. The head nurse threatened to shut down poker night if they didn’t straighten up, but when they promised to behave, the games persisted and even got a long write-up called “Seven of Hearts” in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
While waiting, Joe got especially close with one of his poker buddies, Russ Pecoraro, a former sheriff from Grand Island, also a cardiac patient, who had heard about Joe from the nurses. He walked into Martino’s room one day and they struck up a conversation about the mafia books Joe had nearby. After a while, Pecoraro would show up early every morning and fire up the hot plate to make eggs for their breakfast. The pair became fast friends, but sadly, Russ never got his new heart. He died last September.
Joe can’t even talk about the death of Pecoraro without breaking down. He hates the tears, but they come anyway. “They told me I would get mean or emotional,” he said, with a crooked smile, blaming his show of emotion on the anti-rejection medication that keeps him alive. “And I was already mean.”
The tears are the only visible evidence of the softening of Joe Martino, but his kids and his friends swear he’s a kinder, gentler fellow. Barbara is not so convinced, especially after a recent fit he threw when the sugar in his coffee tasted wrong. Perhaps we’re all hardest on those we’re closest too, so maybe that’s the deal. But, it’s not easy being Joe right now. His life is more about what he can’t do than what he can. Still, he hasn’t lost sight that somewhere in the big game plan, he was meant to survive. For that, he’s grateful. He’d like to thank the family of the young donor in person, but the rules require that they reach out to him first.
He’s still not looking for any new friends, but he would like to meet them face to face. “It’s their call. It’s up to them.”
He shrugs, still tough in so many ways, but surely not as tough as he used to be. He says, simply, “I just want to see if they need anything.”