Weedsport man finally gets heart transplant after waiting 34 years
Tom Pacholyk sits with his wife, Jill, in their Weedsport home Friday afternoon. Pacholyk underwent heart transplant surgery in August. Sam Tenney / The Citizen

Tom Pacholyk's ticker doesn't tick anymore. That's a good thing in his case.

The 52-year-old man underwent open-heart surgery when he was 18 because he had two faulty valves. Doctors replaced the valves with mechanical prosthetics, which gave off audible clicks with the beat of his heart.

“It sounded like I had a clock with me,” Pacholyk said during a conversation at his Weedsport home. “I had the tick, but I never had the time.”

During the summer, after complications related to an automobile accident, it became apparent the ticking wasn't going to last much longer. Pacholyk needed a new heart as soon as he could get one.

On Aug. 23, while at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester with his health deteriorating, Pacholyk got the call that the heart was in.

His recovery is coming along today. But Pacholyk's journey back to health represents more than eight months of medications, procedures and physical therapy.

To him and his wife, Jill, it's also the result of family, faith, community support and personal drive that has kept him ticking since surgeons first cracked open his sternum in 1976.

On May 1, those friends and family will ask the community to continue the support during a benefit in Pacholyk's honor.

“I never thought of myself as a heart patient,” Pacholyk said. “I always worked hard and stayed active. I never made excuses.”

Even still, Pacholyk's heart has directed many of his decisions in his life. He's occasionally changed professions to deal with cardiac issues - tending a farm, running a lawn care company or working as a custodian at a local school. He met Jill at his cardiologist's office, where she worked as a nurse.

In June, his heart led him to Strong Memorial for what would be a four-month stay.

His mechanical valves already lasted 23 years longer than they were expected. But it was clear, Jill said, that he needed to be put on the transplant list. Her husband wouldn't have lived through Christmas without a new heart.

“It was a little scary,” said Jill, who added that experience as a nurse gave her added perspective through the process.

“I saw the big picture,” she said.

While waiting in the hospital, Pacholyk was put on a strong heart medication. Determined to keep his body active, he walked three miles a day through the hospital halls. Sometimes he needed a staff member to help him along, Pacholyk said.

There were low points when his health weakened so much that he can barely remember them. He calls one such stretch in July his “darkest days.”

There were some highs, like when former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino called him at the hospital. A family member of Pacholyk knew a family member of Marino's through work and set up the call, he said.

An avid Dolphins fan, Pacholyk said football was a common topic among the medical staff who were fans of the rival Buffalo Bills.

“When Dan called, I think half the staff became Dolphins fans,” he said with a laugh.

Pacholyk said he's received overwhelming support from the community so far, which he says is helping to push him through recovery.

One of his biggest inspirations is a niece who he says is driven to live a full life despite being in a wheelchair. The other, he said, is Jill.

“She's always been my picker-upper,” he said.

Pacholyk says a prayer every day and tries to walk when he can, sometimes on a treadmill and sometimes outdoors. He often has to wear a mask to prevent catching a bug, which would be a shock to his weak immune system.

Pacholyk will take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. But the medicine with the strongest effects are the steroids. He and Jill say they have a major impact on his emotional state, causing big emotional swings.

When you receive a new heart, Tom said, it's a constant struggle between the new organ and the body, which knows it's a foreign object. But that's nothing new to Pacholyk, who lived as normal a life he could with a “mechanical” heart for more than 30 years.

“Your body is your biggest enemy when you have a new heart,” he said. “You've just got to keep up the fight. You can't give up.”

Pacholyk prefers this fight to the last one. When he came out of surgery on Aug. 23, he said hospital staff and Jill commented that he had more color in his face. He felt warmth in his body. Pacholyk actually felt like he had a pulse.

One of his first memories after the transplant is putting on a stethoscope and hearing his new heart. When he heard no ticks, he cried.

“I'm metal-free now. I feel human,” Pacholyk said.

Staff writer Christopher Caskey can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 282 or christopher.caskey@lee.net

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