PITTSTON — George Simko has a good heart. And a loving wife. And a lot of good friends.
The only thing he needs is a kidney.
But while he’s waiting for that miracle to happen, Simko recently learned just how much love surrounds him in his community.
The Pittston resident was the guest of honor at a benefit to help his cause — and to help pay a few bills — at Diane’s Deli and Internet Café on Aug. 8. Family members, friends and residents of the community streamed into the Main Street eatery to enjoy a pasta dinner, perhaps take a chance on a gift basket or buy a T-shirt. And to show their support for a friend waiting to get into the national database system that can help find him a transplant match.
This benefit is personal. George’s wife, Diane, is the restaurant’s owner and has hosted benefits for people in the community since it opened 20 years ago.
“It wasn’t hard to decide to do this benefit,” said co-organizer Theresa Miller, of Pittston. “Diane is always doing benefits for someone else. It was time somebody did something for her and George.”
It wasn’t difficult to locate the event. Volunteers in kelly green T-shirts worked both inside the restaurant, serving plates of penne covered with Diane’s homemade sauce or packed to-go bags for diners who didn’t want to stay. Outside, more T-shirt-wearing volunteers sold raffle tickets at a table full of gift baskets. And green and silver helium balloons in the shape of stars waved in the breeze.
A DJ played music in the afternoon and later, seven local bands provided live music until midnight, all to help the cause.
If love and caring were medications, George might have overdosed that day.
“I’m making good on a promise to our mom,” said his sister, Theresa Bishop, of Pittston. “There were eight of us. I’m the youngest. And I promised her before she passed, that I’d be there to help take care of my brothers and sisters.”
Old school friends like John Biscontini, of Pittston, came by. He came with Jimmy Ferraro, who drove in from Philadelphia to help his friend.
“We’ve been friends for years,” said Kelly Summerton, who lives “just across the street” from Diane’s Deli. “It makes me sad; it hurts me to see him going downhill. I’m here to help do what I can to get him better.”
And there were new friends, like benefit co-organizer Kim O’Boyle.
“I got to know George when I moved into the building next door in 2007. I’d come here for pizza because the food is really good here. When Theresa mentioned helping out George and Diane, I didn’t hesitate for a second,” she said.
Miller said organizers didn’t set a fund-raising goal, but wanted to bring in as many dollars as possible.
“We’re just trying to help them offset a lot of those medical expenses,” Miller said. “Things like just paying for gas to get to the hospital or medicines and things like that.”
It’s the odd bills that come in that put a burden on the budget, George said.
“But what really puts on a strain is the waiting. And the not knowing what will happen,” he said.
When George was 44, doctors diagnosed a potentially fatal heart condition that ultimately sent him to Hershey Medical Center in late 2001 for a heart transplant. He made medical history by being the first person ever to be able to get off the majority of the post-transplant medications within two weeks after the surgery, but one of the remaining drugs, a steroid to keep him from rejecting the new organ, affected his kidneys.
Now, he spends four hours a day, three days a week in dialysis at the Fresenius Medical Care (FMC) Dialysis Center in Pittston. He underwent four months of grueling medical tests to qualify for a kidney transplant. And he’s hoping to find someone with Type A-negative blood to match.
“The test for the donor is fairly simple,” he said. “Nothing like I had to go through. A person just has to take a blood test.”
Diane, his wife of 34 years, wants to spend more time with him and is praying for another miracle.
“He’s here for a reason,” she said. “He had one miracle; he got a donor heart on Christmas Eve. From Bethlehem, no less. Well, it was Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but still….”
As for George, he’s working hard at keeping spirits high. He said the benefit was a “humbling experience” to learn how many people cared.
“I got the heart and things seemed to be good. And then the medicine crossed me up,” he said. “The dialysis takes a lot out of life. But even though I’m on dialysis, I’m alive. I guess I’m here for some purpose. I hope to get the kidney so I can find out what that purpose is.”