MANATEE COUNTY — Daddy had a broken heart, and it needed to be fixed.
Laszlo Szilagyi’s two young sons, Peter and Adam, then 4 and 5 years old, didn’t understand why their father could no longer play with them, or why he had to stop every few steps to catch his breath.
They didn’t understand why his body had begun to swell up like a marshmallow from the feet up.
All they knew was his heart was broken.
“How many times in that year did they ask, ‘When will they fix Daddy’s broken heart?” said Laszlo’s wife, Noemi, studying her husband’s face.
Too many times her children had asked that question with no answer in sight.
When a friend suggested the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, Noemi, after a year of dead ends, wasted no time in emailing the organization. She was shocked, however, to hear from the Pepin Heart Hospital in Tampa just a few days later with news they would treat her husband.
“(The foundation) did in four days, what I could not in over a year,” Noemi says. “The doctors (at Pepin) said my husband should not be alive in the condition that he was in, and he just continued to amaze everybody with his progress and will.
“After 28 days in the hospital, Daddy’s broken heart was fixed, the boys got their dad back — and me, my best friend,” she says.
Now, children at Bashaw Elementary, where Noemi serves as the Parent-Teacher Organization president, are rallying to help fathers such as Laszlo. During a series of before-school fundraisers this week, children are decorating sidewalks, running, jumping and hula-hooping in hopes of raising $2,500 for the Larry King Cardiac Foundation. The amount is the average cost of saving one person’s life. Last year, the school raised about $1,000 for the cause and was able to save the life of a father in Tampa, Richard Waters.
A small business owner, Laszlo was diagnosed with diabetes in 2000, and from that point on, he and his family were unable to get insurance coverage. Options, the Szilagyis said, were limited.
But then, in 2007, Laszlo noticed he was having trouble bending over to tie his shoe. He planned to bring up the issue at his next doctor’s checkup.
“I thought maybe I was just overweight,” Laszlo says. “(The doctor) listened to my heart and said I should get a chest X-ray. It showed an enlarged heart.”
Subsequent tests and doctors visits showed Laszlo had a mitral valve leak, meaning the valve to his heart was not closing properly. At first, Laszlo tried medication to help correct the problem, but within six months, his body had begun to swell.
“The swelling had taken over his body,” Noemi says. “He looked like he was eight months pregnant. His body was filling with fluid in his chest and his belly.”
Doctors recognized Laszlo needed surgery — and soon. However, wherever Noemi turned for help, she hit a wall. The couple didn’t qualify for Medicaid or assistance from local hospitals. Inquiries to heart-related organizations, research hospitals and others proved fruitless.
“At first, you’re embarrassed about what you are going through, and then desperation kicks in,” Noemi says. “You need to do something, so you just start spreading the word and try to make people aware. They might know something.”
The Szilagyis began sharing their story.
“And then my angel came,” Laszlo says, smiling.
Noemi smiles, too.
Their friend and business colleague, Tiffany Foster, at Gator Stamping, had read about the Larry King Cardiac Foundation in a magazine and encouraged them to get more information.
Noemi visited the organization’s website and began reading testimonials of individuals helped.
“Every story ... sounded like ours,” she says. “Every single story was us.”
At 4 p.m. one Thursday afternoon, Noemi emailed the foundation with her family’s story. And on Monday morning, she received a call back. They would have Laszlo in surgery within days.
An X-ray showed Laszlo’s left lung was functioning at about 25% and his right at about 33% because they were so compressed by fluid. Doctors worked to drain some of the fluid, detaining the surgery slightly, to help avoid complications.
The surgery lasted more than five hours, as the surgeon worked to repair Laszlo’s valve without having to replace it.
Following the surgery, doctors continued to drain Laszlo’s body, working slowly to keep Laszlo’s lungs from collapsing. In total, he lost 55 pounds of fluid over his 28-day hospital stay.
Daddy’s heart was finally fixed.
As arranged through the Larry King Foundation, the hospital wrote off more than $200,000 for the cost of Laszlo’s hospital stay alone. Surgeons and other medical professionals completed the surgery at no cost. The foundation paid for supplies used in the surgery.
“We’ll never have that money,” Noemi says. “We’ll never be able to give back what was given to our family.”
And that’s why the Szilagyis are doing their part to help raise money and awareness for the foundation. Noemi says she hopes to get other Manatee County schools involved in raising funds for the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, as well.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
Even while Laszlo was sick and barely able to walk, he and Noemi attended Bashaw’s PTO and Student Advisory Council meetings. Noemi didn’t miss a single one, and Laszlo only missed one meeting immediately following surgery, while he was still in the hospital.
Brush with fame
During their stay at Pepin Heart Hospital, the Szilagyis met Larry King and his son, Larry King Jr., as well as Gov. Rick Scott.