As Father’s Day approaches, Tom Meshanko is preparing to spend the day with his family in Moraine State Park. He’ll take a boat onto the lake, fish, and spend time with his five grandchildren.
Meshanko counts himself lucky. The 69-year-old father of two said he doesn’t feel his age. That’s because his heart is 22 years old—literally.
A recipient of a heart transplant at UPMC Presbyterian, Meshanko celebrated the second anniversary of what he considers his “second chance” in life on June 13. The long-time Forest Hills resident and former council member said he struggled with heart problems for more than 20 years before the transplant; his own father died of a heart attack shortly after Meshanko and his wife Donna were married.
“I feel right now like I’ve never even had a transplant,” Meshanko said. “I’m doing everything I want to do—everything. I’m just a normal person.”
In the spring of 2009, however, that wasn’t the case. Meshanko spent weeks in the hospital receiving treatment for infections resulting from the Implantable Cardiac Defibrillator that used to be in his chest.
He went home afterward, but his condition worsened. Years prior, Meshanko recalled, a doctor had told him he’d be lucky to see 70.
“I was ready to check out,” he said.
When Meshanko returned to his doctor, he recommended a heart transplant—an idea Meshanko initially rejected. But once convinced, Meshanko signed up on the waiting list.
Two hours later, he was notified that he had a match.
The operation was performed on June 13, 2009. That year, Meshanko’s family spent Father’s Day visiting him in the hospital, unsure of how long he would be around.
By the end of 2009, Meshanko had begun to make a substantial recovery. Over time, he began cutting the grass, hunting and playing table tennis with his grandson—things that were difficult or impossible before the transplant.
“It’s small things like that,” Meshanko said, “just appreciating life.”
But beyond simple appreciation, Meshanko has taken on another task: reaching out to people who are awaiting organ transplants.
Meshanko is involved with numerous outreach organizations, including the Transplant Recipient International Organization and the Center for Organ Recovery & Education. Recently, he began working to establish a local support group for those waiting for or recovering from heart transplants. The Heart Transplant Support Group expects to host its first meeting in July.
“You could never keep him still, even when he was sick,” said Kimberly Baldini, his daughter.
Nevertheless, Meshanko’s wife Donna said, his dedication to helping others has never been greater.
“I think it’s his gratefulness for having new life,” she said. “I’ve seen him change as a person.”
For his part, Meshanko said his outreach efforts stem from an understanding of the anxiety and fear one has when going through health crises.
“Maybe my feelings about satisfying and people and putting them at ease goes way back to 1986 and my first bypass,” Meshanko said. “I was 46. And I was scared as hell.”
When Meshanko talks to those awaiting transplants, he said, they often ask about medications and their side effects, among other things. The major advice Meshanko gives is to follow their doctors’ instructions. But his role also is to share his experience with people who can relate.
“We’re not experts, but we’ve walked the path a little,” Meshanko said. “It’s rewarding for us, plus it’s rewarding for them.”
Most people wait months for organ donors; Meshanko waited hours. It’s something he is almost embarrassed to share with people, he said, because of his unusual luck.
Father’s Day took on greater meaning after the transplant, Baldini said.
“Definitely I appreciate more than ever having a father to celebrate Father’s Day with,” Baldini said.
But that’s not the only time she thinks of him, she added.
“I pass his story along all the time,” she said. “(After the transplant), I signed up to be an organ donor myself.”
Meshanko said he has written to the donor’s family twice. They haven’t written back, he said, but he’ll never forget how another person’s tragedy was his second chance.
In September, Donna Meshanko will decorate her husband’s birthday cake. His age, 70, will appear somewhere on the cake. In the middle will be a heart and the number 22. It’s something she started doing after the transplant, she said, and she plans to continue the tradition every year.