Tony Lesakowski enjoys a steady beat in his heart and on the dance floor. Eight years after a life-saving heart transplant at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital, Lesakowski competes in ballroom dance earning honors across the nation.
“I started dancing originally as a way to get out and be more social,” said Lesakowski, 66, of West Seneca, near Buffalo. “Now I see it as a sport and train for it.”
Competitive dancing is physically demanding and after rehearsing intricate steps of the rumba or waltz, Lesakowski and his partner, Iliana Kaneva, owner of Ballroom Dance Center, glisten under the sparkling mirror ball.
Rehearsing six days a week, Lesakowski’s efforts are paying off. At a competition at Niagara Falls, he was named top male dancer – a tremendous honor for a 66-year-old competing against many younger dancers.
He credits his new heart for enabling him to manage the rigorous dances. He often thinks about the generous gift of life he received in 2006 and believes he is making good use of it every day.
“He was very sick, facing end-stage heart failure when we first met him. To be able to provide him with a new heart and see how he is doing something completely new is incredibly rewarding,” said Chen.
Many years ago, Lesakowski was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a broad term for conditions related to a weakened heart muscle. In his case, it was an enlarged left ventricle, which his hometown cardiologist managed with medications, a defibrillator and pacemaker. When signs of heart failure worsened, Lesakowski came to UR Medicine’s Program in Heart Failure, Artificial Heart and Transplantation for more specialized care.
He joined the UR Medicine heart transplant waiting list when he was so sick he “could hardly get off the chair.” Transplant surgeon H. Todd Massey, M.D., performed the life-saving surgery on Nov. 9, 2006, and Lesakowski’s wife of 41 years, Geraldine, was at his side providing support and care throughout his recovery.
“It’s been eight years and I’m feeling good. I remember that it took a while to acclimate to the medications that I needed to take with my new heart,” Lesakowski said. “I couldn’t wait to get back out there and slowly built up my strength. I walked a lot and started to get more exercise.”
Sadly, Geraldine died suddenly in 2009 and that stunned Lesakowski. “I was sick for all those years and she was never sick until she just had that episode. My whole life changed then,” he said.
Lesakowski relied on friends to help overcome “feeling lost.” They traveled a bit and went out to lunch, but he really needed a project or distraction. One afternoon he noticed Kaneva’s dance studio near his home. Recalling fond memories of evenings dancing with his wife when they were younger, he decided to sign up for a few classes.
“My wife and I never studied dancing, but we went out and had fun,” Lesakowski said. “I started dancing to get out and meet some new people. Then I got more serious about it and I treat it as a sport…and it fits me perfectly.”
The American Heart Association recommends people get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day to help maintain a healthy heart. For Lesakowski, that’s just the starting point when he gets into the dance studio.
“I never thought, at this age, that I’d have so much energy and so much desire to do something like this,” Lesakowski said.
UR Medicine is the University of Rochester’s health care system. It includes Strong Memorial Hospital (and its inpatient and outpatient components such as Golisano Children’s Hospital, Wilmot Cancer Center, and Flaum Eye Institute), University of Rochester Medical Faculty Group, Highland Hospital, Thompson Health, Eastman Dental, The Highlands at Brighton, The Highlands Living Center, and a range of clinical programs serving patients across western New York.
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