Zachary Spione has touched the hearts of this community since he was a youngster.
Locals watched him grow and flourish, and couldn’t help but love his open friendliness, his enthusiasm for life and the warm-hearted smile he shares easily.
A graduate of St. Michael Catholic Elementary School and Holy Cross Secondary School, he has been working in local stores, coffee shops and businesses since he was 14 — Phil’s valu-mart, McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, Silk’s Country Kitchen, Subway, Dominos, PetroCan, Stratus Winery, even the Whirlpool Jet Boats, where he was a guest service agent — those were the names he could remember.
More recently, he became known as the greeter when the new Bricks & Barley Restaurant opened, with his parents as co-owners.
So it was with a huge feeling of dread that many learned less than three weeks ago he had been rushed into an operating room for emergency open heart surgery.
And then, just hours into his recovery, was rushed back in again, having his chest opened up for a second time in less than 24 hours to correct bleeding that was filling his heart cavity and making it increasingly difficult for him to breathe.
The irony of Spione’s very frightening experience was that it had nothing to do with his genetic condition, known as Noonan syndrome, which can include congenital heart disease. His parents were warned when he was a baby that he would likely require heart surgery, but not for the reasons that sent him to the hospital as a 27-year-old man, and scared the daylights out of him, his family, and the many members of the community who have been touched by him and care about his welfare.
The path that led to the emergency room began last June, when he went to his doctor with breathing difficulties and was sent from his doctor’s office by ambulance to the Niagara Falls hospital site.
There, he was sent to the cardiac care unit, where it was discovered he had fluid in his lungs.
He had been sick for awhile before that, but he’s not a complainer, says Maria, his mother.
“He’s so strong. We didn’t realize how sick he was.”
He had an infection that had been untreated, and was given antibiotics and released.
Since then, he has continued to be treated with medication for an infection and to drain fluid around his heart, in an effort to prevent surgery, but it didn’t work, Maria says.
A trip to the St. Catharines hospital in November when his breathing worsened, led to every test imaginable, he says, and after two days in emergency, admittance to the cardiac care unit, where he stayed for a week while doctors tried to get inflammation around his heart under control.
“They were keeping him stable, but they weren’t solving the problem,” says Maria, who has nothing but praise for the care Zac received. “Everyone in emergency, nurses and doctors, was fantastic. We don’t hear that often enough.”
When he learned he was being transferred to Hamilton General Hospital by ambulance, Zac says he was actually feeling a little better, as another round of testing began.
An angiogram showed scar tissue in his pericardial sac, which surrounds the heart. The thickening of the sac was what was impacting his breathing, and a decision was made to perform emergency open heart surgery for a pericardiectomy, which removes the sac. Without the surgery, even if they had solved the immediate problem, it would likely have returned, says Maria.
The angiogram, says Zac, might have been the most frightening part of the whole terrifying experience. At one point during the procedure, he saw angels — including four people, family and friends, who had passed away.
He also saw golden gates, but they were closed. “I thought it was because God was showing me it wasn’t my time, that I still had work to do.”
So when he was told he required surgery, he was calm, he says.
On Dec. 5, he was rushed into surgery about 10:30 p.m., and in the wee hours of Dec. 6, his family, waiting anxiously in a waiting room, were reaching out to friends and family and asking for prayers for Zac. Four hours later, they learned their prayers had been answered and the surgery had been successful.
Maria says for a few hours Zac seemed to be doing well. He was still in critical care, heavily monitored, but as the morning progressed, it was getting harder and harder for him to breathe. They were beside themselves, not knowing what was happening to him. “At one point, he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this,’” says Maria.
In an update to friends and family, she says, “please continue to pray for him. I don’t know how much more he can take.”
Finally, after a surge of doctors and nurses surrounded him in a flurry of activity, they were told there was some bleeding in his chest cavity, and Zac was headed back to the operating room to have his chest opened up for the second time.
With his mother in tears, telling him he couldn’t leave them, Zac promised he wouldn’t. “A promise is a promise,” he says now.
“That was another three-hour wait,” says his dad, Marco. “They had to remove five litres of blood.”
“That was the worst three hours of our lives,” adds Alexa, Zac’s younger sister.
Sitting with his family in their Virgil living room shortly after being discharged from the hospital, Zac listens to the words of his parents and sister, and is still having difficulty talking, having to stop to rest, catch his breath, and wipe his eyes — he becomes emotional recalling what happened to him and how he felt. He says he’s been told to expect that emotional reaction to continue, maybe for as long as a year, as he recovers from an experience that nearly took his life.
“They told me when you come that close to dying, you get very emotional thinking about it, and feeling so grateful that you’re still alive,” he says. “Even though the fear is gone, it takes awhile to accept the reality of what has happened, and realize how lucky you are to be alive.”
As hard as that experience was for all of them, Zac says now he believes he will feel stronger than he ever has. His circulation, always poor due to Noonan syndrome, is already much improved — for the first time he can remember, his hands and feet are warm, he says.
“And if I listen, I can hear my heart. It sounds so much stronger.”
A deformity in the bone structure of his chest, which he has had since birth, has also been corrected, he says.
“There is more room for me to breathe now, better lung capacity, and more room for my heart to pump. I’m already feeling more energy.”
Zac says in the days and weeks leading up to his surgery, “I prayed to be healthy again,” and the 17-day journey he has travelled, from the trip to St. Catharines to coming home, has definitely made him stronger.
He was discharged six days after surgery, and although he wants to get back to the restaurant to see his friends, and return to a job he loves — he’s now working in the kitchen prepping food — he has to rest at home. Maria is also concerned about exposing him to germs, worrying about what a cold would do to him at this point.
Maria, meanwhile, calling her son “our Christmas miracle,” says the family has been overwhelmed by the response from the community, and Alexa was looking forward to what she knew would be the family’s “best Christmas ever.”
The family, and especially Zac, have been astonished by the number of people, new and old friends, and even those who never prayed, who reached out with love, support and prayers during a very challenging time, says Maria.
“I knew I was loved,” says Zac. “I had no idea I had touched so many people.”
Maria recalls the day she and Marco decided to buy a lot and build a house in NOTL — the best decision they ever made.
“There is so much love in this community,” she says.
When Zac was in the hospital, Michael McGarr, the man he calls his BFF and brother, started a Go Fund Me page, asking people to show Zac “some love.”
They did, also showering him with cash.
Everyone who knows Zac, says McGarr, “knows he’s an amazingly kind-hearted dude who would do anything for his friends and family.”
He has been through a lot in his life, “and always comes out on top,” says McGarr. He says he started the fund so that when Zac has recovered, he and his family can take a trip to Harry Potter World in Disneyland. “Let’s show our buddy some love,” he says.
The fund had reached $12,000 by last weekend — evidence of a loving community showing it cares.