Heart transplant

Norfolk doctor back to practicing medicine after receiving heart transplant | News

When veteran Norfolk obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Keith Vrbicky felt tired and congested last Labor Day weekend, he attributed it to a mild case of COVID-19, an infection of the sinus or strain of a busy week.

The fit doctor has delivered over 13,000 babies and performed countless surgeries, and although rarely sick enough to miss a day of work, he is just human.

He never suspected a life-threatening condition. The symptom that ultimately led him to seek medical attention was shortness of breath. For someone who regularly cycled several miles a week and took stairs for exercise at the Faith Regional Health Service where he practices, this was alarming.

“That’s when I realized something was wrong,” he said.

Still, he was shocked to learn of the diagnosis: Acute Congestive Heart Failure. This despite no history of heart disease, no arterial blockage, no defects. The medical crisis progressed so quickly that 10 days after he was transferred to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, his survival depended on a heart transplant.

Less than 24 hours passed between registering for status I and receiving her new heart. Confidentiality protocols prevent him from knowing the identity of the person who made his second chance possible.

Following the successful operation, Vrbicky rehabilitated for a week and a half at UNMC, returning home in early October. His post-transplant recovery is continuing with close medical follow-up. More than four months from the transplant, he is back to exercise his “vocation of life”, although on a reduced schedule.

A devout Catholic who attends Mass almost every morning, Vrbicky feels divinely spared for one purpose: to champion organ donation, UNMC’s quality of care, the power of prayer, and the primacy of the family.

“I really feel like I witnessed a miracle,” the 67-year-old said. “I have not only witnessed it, I am the miracle. I wake up thinking how grateful I am for the gift I have received of a new breath of life. I feel called to share this I’ve been through. I’m encouraged by patients and friends to tell this story. It happened over a short period of time, but a lot happened in such a short time.

He knows now that if he had ignored the nagging symptoms, he wouldn’t be alive today. Everything seemed so benign. Family members noted that his color and energy was off at his daughter Liz’s surprise birthday party in Omaha.

Despite testing negative for COVID the previous week, coronavirus still seemed the likely culprit. After all, there are false negative results. But it turned out that the fluid in his lungs was due to a failing heart operating at just 15% capacity. Adding to the concern, blood clots were detected in both ventricles.

He had gone from seemingly perfect health to being told that a dislodged clot could kill him. Before he could sink, he was placed in intensive care. The esteemed doctor who took care of others was suddenly a critical heart patient.

It was only the beginning of a downward spiral. With large doses of drugs without effect, his condition deteriorated. The unusual presentation of his case made it difficult to determine the exact cause despite a battery of imaging tests. The uncertainty only contributed to fear and frustration. Finally, a risky heart biopsy revealed that he suffered from an extremely rare cardiovascular disease: giant cell myocarditis.

With viable treatment options exhausted, he was listed for a transplant, put on a balloon pump, and then onto an ECMO machine, to oxygenate his blood. The staff worked hard to keep his failing liver and kidneys functioning.

His large, tight-knit family – he and his wife, Karyn, are parents to six adult children – have been supportive throughout the odyssey. News of the star doctor turned patient in this dramatic way, requiring next-level care, has spread in Norfolk. Wishes flooded the family.

At worst, doctors and nurses have noted his friendliness, serenity and grace, qualities he attributes to his faith. Although sorely tested, her faith in the care team never wavered.

“They had to make crucial decisions at the right time and, if they hadn’t made them at the right time, I wouldn’t be here.”

Additionally, he says, medicine is “a team sport” due to increased specialization. “We must depend on each other to collaborate and communicate for the betterment of the patient. The specialists did a masterful job working together and helping to make tough decisions.

“That’s what you want to get, the best patient care and the best outcomes. They went the extra mile to help us and explain to us as best they could what was going on. They were always positive. They made sure we didn’t lose hope. They said, ‘Doctor, we’re all going to get through this together.’ It meant the world.

Still, a heart had to be found within a 48-hour window or its prognosis was dire. Cardiac nurse Kirk Vodicka said that when Vrbicky woke up to ask if he wanted to accept the matched organ, the patient said, “Let’s go,” followed by “God bless the donor family. “.

Vrbicky underwent the operation on the night of September 24. A few hours later, the chief surgeon, Dr John Um, called to meet the family. Karyn said: “We were all holding our breath, expecting the worst. Then he said, “It went surprisingly well. He has a good heart. And the air just came out of all of us.

After the breathing tube was removed from Vrbicky’s throat, his family said the first word he spoke after the surgery was “Hallelujah.”

This man of faith and science believes that prayer played an intercessory role in his case alongside the medical expertise involved. He wants to “raise awareness” of what a regional tertiary and academic care center such as UNMC offers.

“I think too few doctors and patients know about this resource that we have with this transplant team and this cardiovascular division. People come to them from all over the world for care. It’s such an asset to the city, to the state, to the people that we have such a big thing in Nebraska.

The classification of patients for transplantation is the result of the chronic shortage of organs and tissues, which is why he advocates that more people register as donors. For example, he said an average of about 3,000 people are on the heart transplant list nationwide.

“Unfortunately, 20% of them die before they could be selected, probably due to the deterioration of their condition. This is all due to the lack of organs – not just the heart, but the lungs, kidneys, liver. There is a huge need and we all need to try to spread the word. One of my missions for the rest of my life is to raise awareness and educate.

On average, 110,000 Americans are waiting for an organ or tissue transplant.

Modest Vrbicky had to get used to people asking what happened to him.

“With the size of our community and our hospital, everyone knows everyone else, so going from doctor to patient all of a sudden was such a shock to everyone. People couldn’t believe it. Me niether. Everyone has confirmed the tremendous amount of prayers going on for me since I was admitted to the hospital. It’s really gratifying to hear that. Many of these patients I’ve known for 40 years. We go back a long way. »

When he was first hospitalized in Norfolk, concerned colleagues openly expressed their concern. “I remember the looks on the faces of nurses and doctors. It was a strange experience. With so much support, I almost felt like I had to get through this for everyone’s sake.

That concern has extended to Omaha, where the Creighton graduate is well known and respected. The fact that his son, Keith Jr., is an OB/GYN resident at UNMC and a son-in-law is a radiologist there added to the collegiate concern around his case.

“You don’t always know you’re touching people,” Vrbicky said. “Sometimes you only find out when they bother to contact you when you’re sick or going through something. Then you find out how much you meant to them and how much they mean to you.

Back home, Vrbicky is often asked about his experience. He is happy to oblige curiosity. Her story has recently found a large audience on a few TV channels.

He is working with this writer on a book that he hopes will inform and inspire people to be good stewards of their own health and to give life to others.

His appreciation for life is “even deeper” now after what he’s been through. “We all kind of take our health for granted,” he said, “until all of a sudden we don’t have it anymore. Having this experience of having another chance at life really increases the importance and sanctity of life.

One of the hardest trials of his ordeal was being confined to a bed or a room, which the ultra-active Vrbicky called “torture”. Surrendering to the reality that he is not superhuman but rather mortal and newly dependent on others, he said, “was a big wake-up call – it took a while for the accept”.

His new lease of life has been celebrated this past Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Being with loved ones after what he survived has made his family stronger.

“Lots of hugs, kisses and tears, thanking God for letting us all be together again. It was so joyful. There’s no better feeling than that. We’re so grateful. We stayed together, we really love and care about each other.

Living with a new heart comes with risks of rejection and infection which he takes medication to mitigate. Frequent checkups in Norfolk and Omaha are part of his regimen. “It’s a different life,” he said.

“One of my biggest worries from the start of my illness was that I would no longer be able to practice the profession of doctor again. Then when I got through the operation well and recovered well, it gave me a lot of hope and encouragement, and I think it helped the healing process. The mind is so powerful. It influences how we heal. It has tremendous healing power if we approach things with the right mindset.

“I was very motivated to find patients and staff. I’m doing minor outpatient surgery. Nothing too strenuous. I don’t do deliveries yet. I plan to get back to it gradually – but in limited numbers. I used to do 25-35 deliveries a month. Well, that’s crazy because 50% of them are delivered overnight.

Although a new heart has a limited lifespan, he said, “I’m going to do what I love because I really don’t have anything else I’m good at.

“But I feel like I’m good at it.”

He looks forward to his son Keith Jr. joining his firm next year.

Vrbicky’s extreme experience has already changed him in ways he and Karyn have noted, including a better sense of humor. Along with laughing more easily, he said, “I became humbled by it. I think it has improved my empathy for those struggling with any condition. It will change my practice, it will change my relationships with people in a positive way.