STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Many people feel attending the Staten Island Bowling Hall of Fame Dinner is a wonderful night. But Donny Walters felt more fortunate than normal when he attended this year’s event on Jan. 20.
Bobby Garzone, left, and Donny Walters were friends through bowling, but now are even closer through Walters near-death experience. Staten Island Advance/Bill Lyons
Rewind to November of 2011 when the Mariners Harbor resident was inducted into the Hall of Fame after receiving the Ben McNevich Award saluting his lifetime service to the sport. Although that was a special night, it was also around that time when the affable Walters wasn’t feeling right.
“I started feeling very tired and very fatigued at my job. I would fall asleep on the job. I would just close the door and fall asleep in my office,” said Walters, who was the night manager at Maple Lanes in Brooklyn for 12 years. “I was losing weight at a drastic pace. I was down to 150 pounds. Everyone — myself included — thought I was dying from cancer.”
So Walters decided to get himself checked out at the VA Hospital. For there, the 64-year-old was given a plethora of tests by doctors. Eventually, he was diagnosed as being anemic.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing wrong.
One day in March, Walters was at his house with his brother Curt when he had a heart attack and collapsed. When the call came over the radio for an ambulance, Staten Island University Hospital paramedic Bobby Garzone, responded.
In addition to being one of Walters’ former neighbors, Fort Wadsworth resident Garzone was also one of the early winners of the Staten Island Singles Classic. Those who know Island bowling know Walters ran that tourney for 34 years.
When Garzone arrived, Walters was unconscious, but eventually came to after receiving IV fluids and medication. Stubbornly, though, it still took time for Garzone and family members to convince Walters to go to the hospital.
“He knew the house number and name so he came. They drove me to the VA Hospital in Manhattan,” said Walters. “I was cognizant on the ride but that was the last thing I remember. When I eventually woke up, my whole chest was covered in gauze and I was told that I had open heart surgery.
“According to my brother, I was clinically dead for a period of time,” added the former U.S. Army drill sergeant from 1968-1970 at Fort Dix.
Doctors replaced an aortic valve and had a pacemaker inserted. And less than a year later, that procedure has made a world of difference to Walters, who is now retired.
“I am feeling so great. It’s unbelievable. I feel better every single day,” he said. “I thank everybody for the calls, the messages and everyone I got cards from. It’s all positive input. Positive thinking goes a long way.”
In addition to helping Walters that day in the ambulance, Walters said Garzone has continued to be nothing short of amazing.
“He’s been a consummate friend. He calls every week. He stopped off and visited me in the hospital. He gave everyone updates about me on Facebook,” said Walters. “It was overwhelming. He’s here so often, he just walks in the door.”
Walters also had kind words for his former boss and Maple Lanes owner John LaSpina.
“John LaSpina has been not only a boss but a friend through this whole ordeal. He did a lot of favors for me that he didn’t have to do. And the beauty was that he didn’t do them as favors. He did them from the heart,” said Walters, who also wanted to thank his brother Russell, his oldest son James and his girlfriend Nora Weinberg.
While the whole ordeal may make some people ponder bad things, that wasn’t the case for Walters.
“When you’re in the hospital for a long period of time (58-60 days) and you only have one TV channel, you do a lot of thinking,” Walters laughed. “I think God didn’t do this to me. He did it for me. And He wouldn’t put you in a situation you couldn’t handle. I really, really believe that. And I think that was part of my recovery.”
So it’s no wonder when Walters was asked how he felt about attending this year’s Hall of Fame Dinner — which was postponed from November due to Hurricane Sandy — one of his first words was “lucky.”
And after taking off last year’s Staten Island Singles Classic to recover, Walters says he will be back for this year’s tournament in the spring.
And maybe many Staten Island bowlers will consider that to be a lucky thing.