The wintry air had turned his cheeks rosy red. An ear-to-ear smile creased his face. As Gates Orlando skated around the outdoor rink at Frontier Field that chilly eve six Decembers ago, he felt as unencumbered as he had on the frozen ponds of his youth outside of Montreal in the mid-1960s. Oh, how he had longed to experience a joyous moment such as this again. Oh, how he had wondered many times during his 208-day hospital stay if such a moment would ever come.
While carving the sheet of ice with his skate blades that night, Orlando reflected on his glory days as a speedy, pint-sized center with the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres, and his two trips to the Winter Olympics with the Italian hockey team. He thought about loved ones, and all the fans who had made Rochester feel like home. He also recalled the days when he was restricted to slow treks on a treadmill rather than rapid rushes up a rink, and how dedicated doctors and nurses at Strong Memorial Hospital encouraged him to keep the faith, to keep moving forward, one step at a time.
Mostly, though, he thought about Paul Guyette—the total stranger whose donated heart gave Orlando a second shot at life.
“I definitely was skating for two that night,’’ he recalled during a recent break from his job as a National Hockey League scout for the New Jersey Devils. “It felt like Paul and I were going around that ice together. After not being able to lace ’em up for two years, I was back out there, thanks to Paul and his family and the folks at Strong. That was one incredible night.”
And it would become even more memorable after he stepped off the ice to go shower and watch his former teammates participate in that night’s Amerks alumni game. While Orlando walked spiritedly to the locker room, he was intercepted by Rochester Red Wings general manager Dan Mason, who told him that Paul’s widow, Mary, wanted to meet him.
“We were supposed to chat twice before, but I don’t think she was ready emotionally,’’ Orlando recalled. “So, this caught me totally off-guard, but maybe it was better this way. The other two times I was nervous as hell, worrying about what I would say to her. This happened so fast that I didn’t have time to think or worry.”
When Orlando entered the umpire’s room that Mason had made available, he saw Mary crying. The two embraced, then spent a good thirty minutes talking. Orlando told her he would never be able to thank her and Paul enough for the gift they had given him 10 months earlier. She told him it comforted her and her family to know that Paul was living on in him and in five other people who received his organs. Orlando wanted to learn more about her husband. She mentioned how Paul had been an electrician who loved hunting and attending games involving the Buffalo Bills, Sabres and Amerks.
“When we got ready to leave, Gates hugged me and asked if I wanted to touch Paul’s heart,’’ she recalled. “He placed my hand on his chest. I can’t put into words the emotions I felt at that moment. It was overwhelming. Gates has been so gracious and wonderful since the moment I met him. I tell him, ‘Gates, it’s not Paul’s heart. It’s your heart.’ He said, ‘No, Mary. It will always be Paul’s heart.’’’
Feb. 4 marked the sixth anniversary of Paul’s death and Orlando’s rebirth. It was a bittersweet day for the Amerks’ Hall of Famer. A time of gratitude. And sadness. And reflection. His phone blew up with texts from loved ones wishing him a happy birthday. Like many transplant recipients, Orlando acknowledges two birthdays—this one, and his original one on Nov. 13, 1962.
“I’m happy and I’m sad each February 4, but ultimately I say to myself, ‘Wow! Look what I’ve been given,’’’ said Orlando, who has been in excellent health since receiving his new heart. “I recount all the wonderful things I’ve experienced since that day, things I would have missed out on with my three sons and my friends if it weren’t for Paul and Mary.”
At first, Orlando was reluctant to go public with his story. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had an obligation as a recipient and a forum as a former professional hockey player.
“To not publicize it and encourage others about the importance of organ donation would have been a disservice to Paul and his family,’’ he said. “Paul saved my life, and by telling our story, we have an opportunity to save many more lives. It can have a ripple effect.”
Though he won’t be able to attend, he is pleased the Amerks will be teaming up with the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network for the seventh annual Donate Life Night this Friday during Rochester’s game with the Syracuse Crunch at the Blue Cross Arena. Fans will be able to sign up to become organ donors. Both Orlando and Mary are grateful this tradition is continuing.
“When we were told that Paul was brain dead (from an intracranial hemorrhage), we realized we couldn’t change the outcome and wanted to honor his wishes not to remain on life support,’’ Mary said. “We also asked ourselves, ‘How can we make something good out of something bad?’ That’s what organ donation is about. Paul wound up making a difference not only in Gates’ life, but in the lives of several others. That’s a pretty powerful legacy.”
About two weeks before Paul died, Mary’s good friend, Laurie LoMonaco Newman, had donated one of her healthy kidneys to save the life of her boss’s ailing friend. Her incredible act of kindness made a huge impression on Paul and his family, and influenced Mary’s decision to donate his organs.
Fast forward to last summer and LoMonaco Newman’s wedding. Mary was there. So was Orlando. When he saw Mary, he hugged her and her youngest daughter, Emma. As Orlando walked away, Emma turned to Mary and said excitedly: “Mom, I just felt Daddy’s heart.”
Daddy’s heart. Orlando’s heart. One and the same.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.