Rebecca Szymanski has been fighting for her life since the day she was born.
Born with a congenital heart condition — pulmonary atresia, tricuspid atresia and transposition of the great vessels, which means she was born with a three-chambered heart with no right ventricle — she underwent her first of many open heart surgeries at 30 hours old. Doctors had to restructure her heart to function without a right ventricle.
In the years that followed, Ms. Szymanski, now 41, underwent multiple heart surgeries and hundreds of other procedures to correct the condition. In 2016, she experienced two embolisms in her aorta that resulted in another open heart surgery to revise a previous early childhood heart operation to a modern version in what’s known as an extracardiac Fontan procedure. She was warned that having the procedure made it likely she could develop cirrhosis in her liver.
The later months of the 2021-22 school year were another battle, one that Ms. Szymanski, who teaches special education for grades 7 and 8 at Mattituck Junior High School, tried to keep under the radar.
“She had ascites, a buildup of fluid in your abdomen because of the way her old heart was shunting the blood and it was producing a lot of stress on her liver,” said Melanie Unterstein, Ms. Szymanski’s best friend of three decades.
“She never wanted her colleagues or her students to know and feel she was unable to be there. She would wear these big baggy clothes that would hide her abdomen because she never wanted it to interfere with her professional life.”
Time ticked by, and Ms. Szymanski’s condition worsened. After a September 2022 appointment with her cardiologist revealed dangerously low potassium and kidney levels, she was forced to go on leave and ultimately missed the remainder of the 2022-23 school year. She needed both a heart and a liver transplant, the approval process for which is its own battle. Thankfully, she had champions, including cardiologist Dr. Marlon Rosenbaum, who strongly advocated for her acceptance as a transplant candidate. On Nov. 20, 2022, after several weeks waiting in New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, Ms. Szymanski received the double transplant.
But this second chance came with challenges.
“Unfortunately, after that she had every single complication that you can think of, from infection to bleeding to respiratory failure,” said Peter Cowen, Ms. Szymanski’s uncle and a retired physician. “She was on a ventilator for three months … She was incoherent for part of that time because she was sedated, but as she started waking up, through writing at first because she had a tube in her, said she wanted to go home and wanted to go back to teaching.”
Even after she was discharged, Dr. Cowen explained, Ms. Szymanski still had complications including renal failure and went on dialysis. But yet again, she fought and won. While in the hospital and recovering at home, her friends, family and fellow educators visited her. Despite her struggle, he kept her strength. Perhaps not physically, but emotionally.
“She’s always happy, she’s always positive,” Ms. Unterstein said. “I would go to the hospital [to visit her] and I would feel better when I left. She would be taking care of me.”
Although Ms. Szymanski is still recovering from the procedure, she returned to her classroom in September. Mattituck Superintendent Shawn Petretti said that upon her return, Ms. Szymanski dove headfirst not only into her classroom responsibilities, but into her role as a vibrant faculty member, including her involvement with the Sunshine Club, a teacher organization he said “celebrates happenings within the school, puts on lunches on for the staff and supports the staff in times of need.”
At the conference day teachers attended before students returned for the current school year, Ms. Szymanski was welcomed back with a standing ovation.
“She was determined to recover as soon as possible so that she could get back to work,” Mr. Petretti said. “Her journey has been nothing short of inspiring. We were actually all very much amazed to learn of her return in September, and then to see her actually walk in … It was pretty emotional for everybody.”
For her dedication to Mattituck’s youth and school district, first while enduring personal peril and now as she continues her impressive ongoing recovery, Ms. Szymanski is The Suffolk Times’ 2023 Educator of the Year.
In addition to her friends and family, Ms. Szymanski’s community has been with her every step of the way. While she awaited her procedure last fall, Ms. Unterstein started a GoFundMe to help with the medical costs insurance would not cover, such as post-transplant medications, hospital transportation, rehabilitation and cardiac therapy. The community nearly doubled the fundraiser’s initial goal of $50,000. In January, following administrative recommendation, the school board voted to grant Ms. Szymanski tenure, meaning she cannot be fired without due process. Her friends and family described the moment as a bright spot during their loved one’s trying hospital stay.
Even since the start of the school year, Ms. Szymanski has made notable progress on her route to recovery. On Thanksgiving, the teacher walked with her goddaughter in the annual Turkey Trot alongside Ms. Unterstein and her daughter, Adeline.
“It brings tears to my eyes that she could persevere through this, and be so dedicated to going back to her profession and teaching these kids who really need somebody to encourage them and show that no matter how bad things are, never give up,” Dr. Cowen said. “There’s so many times during this that she almost died, and now she’s teaching again and just walked the Turkey Trot in about an hour.”
Last year, Ms. Szymanski shared her story with The Suffolk Times to spread awareness about organ donation. New York residents ages 16 and older can register to be organ donors by joining the New York State Donate Life Registry. Anyone interested in learning more can visit liveonny.org.
2022: Cindy Goldsmith-Agosta
2021: Melanie Douglass
2020: Dennis Deerkoski
2019: Christine Schade
2018: Rosemary McGoey
2017: Sarah Benjamin
2016: Emily Gundersen
2015: John Roslak
2014: Phillip ‘Skip’ Munisteri
2013: Al Edwards
2012: Daniel Goldfarb
2011: Major William Grigonis
2010: Jean Dempsey
2009: Robert Feger
2008: Charles Kozora
2007: Kathy Williams
2006: Dr. Stuart Rachlin
2005: Mattituck Fund for Students
2004: Ron McEvoy
2003: Chris Gallagher
2002: Brigitte Gibbons
2001: Barbara Ackerman
2000: Ruth Yoskovich
1999: Tom Brennan
1998: Peggy Dickerson
1997: Elizabeth Goldsmith
1996: Lee Ellwood
1995: Linda Gates
1994: Poppy Johnson
1993: Peggy Murphy
1992: Patricia Wall
1991: Charles Nephew
1990: Dennis Claire
1989: Bruno Brauner
1988: Winifred Billard
1987: Jim Christy