Patient Care

Unconventional Union For Officers Provides Hope For New Beats

Feb. 12, 2021

Buffalo Police Detective Jim Kaska and Police Capt. Melinda Jones were planning to marry in mid-February.  They chose the same date Kaska’s parents were wed; their union lasted more than 60 years. 

All of the wedding arrangements were finalized and it was just a matter of time before they said “I do.”

Last week Kaska “threw a wrench into that whole plan.” 

His heart is the problem:  It is failing.  And he needs a heart transplant.

Couple weds in hospital while awaiting heart transplant

They cancelled the ceremony to focus on his health while hospitalized at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital, Upstate New York’s only heart transplant center. In the midst of extensive testing and care, Kaska, 49, joked that he was in trouble because their plans went awry.

The Cardiac Care team stepped in to help them get married. Less than 24 hours later, his hospital room was adorned with blue and white decorations, a bouquet for the bride, cake and some bubbly – ginger ale – for a toast.

The couple exchanged vows during a winter snowstorm on Feb. 6 in the intensive care unit where he is receiving around-the-clock care until a donor heart becomes available. 

The Hon. Kenneth Szyszkowski, Lackawanna City Court judge and a former lieutenant with Buffalo Police Department, married his longtime friends.

The happy couple now hopes for the best gift ever – a new heart…a second chance.

Anatomy of the Heart

Kaska’s troubles stem from a rare birth defect – Transposition of the Great Arteries. The two main arteries in the heart were reversed and surgeons resolved the situation when he was an infant. 

For more than 45 years, he didn’t worry about the lasting impact of his heart. He played hockey in high school and college, joined the police academy and worked 25 years for the Buffalo Police Department. 

That’s normal, but it does not last forever, according to heart transplant cardiologist Eugene Storozynsky, M.D, Ph.D.  

The heart’s two ventricles pump blood to the lungs or the rest of the body. And they are able to withstand the heavy work for years, but not forever. The two ventricles in the heart are not the same.   

The right ventricle pumps the blood through the pulmonary valve to the lungs, where it becomes oxygenated and moves into the left atrium. Then the more powerful left ventricle pumps the oxygen-rich blood through the aorta and through the rest of the body.

When the heart is malformed and ventricles are transposed, the right ventricle’s job shifts to pumping blood through the entire body. And that is far more taxing than the ventricle can withstand for decades.

Signs that Kaska’s symptoms of heart failure began three years ago. He was alarmed by difficulty breathing and inability to walk short distances without exhaustion. Doctors in Buffalo sent him to Strong Memorial, which is home to Upstate New York’s leading heart failure program.

Storozynsky managed his heart function with medications and a subcutaneous defibrillator for about two years. In March Kaska took a leave from the police force – where he met Melinda – in order to reduce risk of infection as the pandemic spread.

In December, Kaska’s situation grew dire and he was added to the waiting list for a heart transplant. And the couple moved ahead and set the wedding date and began planning the wedding.

Couple weds in hospital while awaiting heart transplant
Jim Kaska with his children Ryan and Sarah.

Kaska and Jones have been together for five years. They have a 3-year-old son, Kane, and live in Lake View, south of Buffalo. He also has two young adult children, Ryan and Sarah. 

“We were so close to the date and everything changed and changed again,” Jones said. “I found out Friday at 5 o’clock that we were getting married on Saturday at 1 p.m. I drove to Rochester in a snowstorm, but it was worth it. It was so worth it.”

Kaska is grateful to all who made it happen: “I can’t thank the people here enough. In 20 hours, they made our wedding. It’s remarkable because I’ve only been on this unit two days. It shows the level of care. I think I’m in good hands.” 

20 Years of Second Chances

Strong Memorial is celebrating two decades of heart transplantation, having performed its first surgery Feb. 7, 2001.  

That first heart transplant was a monumental step in a years-long effort to expand heart failure care in the Finger Lakes region, and was followed by the introduction of implantable mechanical pumps known as ventricular assist devices, or VADs.

These advances positioned Strong Memorial Hospital as the only Upstate New York center offering the full continuum of cardiac care, drawing patients from throughout the state and Pennsylvania.

“Every heart transplant is a feat for our care teams, patients and their families,” said Leway Chen, M.D., M.P.H., medical director for the Advanced Heart Failure (AHF) program since its inception. “There’s a great sense of accomplishment as we help these patients and their families through a frightening experience and then as they move forward with their lives. We are reminded of their progress when patients proudly share special photos during routine visits.” 

Working in partnership with the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, URMC’s organ procurement organization, the heart transplant team has provided 275 people with new hearts and more time with loved ones. 

That first year, 11 people received the Gift of Life and five have far surpassed the median survival of 12 to 13 years. Those second chances provide many joys in life – family milestones like graduations, weddings and new babies, traveling, working or retiring from jobs they enjoy, and other “bucket list” items – thanks to generous organ donors.

“Each transplant happens because an individual or family decided to donate organs and help save lives,” Bryan Barrus, M.D., UNOS surgical director of heart transplantation. “We are proud to partner with FLDRN, which works tirelessly to support our efforts and successes.” 

To join the organ donor registry, go to passlifeon.org.