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Heart and lung patients celebrate after getting second chance

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

“The happiest day of my life was the day I died,” said Gerald “Jack” Boekeloo, 72, who was very much alive and enjoying the festivities at Advocate Christ Medical Center’s Annual VAD, Heart and Lung Transplant Holiday Party last Thursday at the Hilton Oak Lawn.

  The party, said to be the largest of its kind in the Chicago area with more than 200 in attendance, brought together Advocate Christ patients who have received heart transplants, lung transplants, or ventricular assist devices, along with their families, doctors, nurses and other staff.

Boekeloo was among those wearing battery packs attached to an LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, which he received after suffering a major heart attack and lost conscience while driving on 95th Street near Cicero Avenue on Nov. 19, 2011. Sitting beside him was Dawn Bausone-Gazda, a nurse at Christ whom he credits with saving his life that day.

LVADs are mechanical heart pumps that are surgically implanted on the left ventricle, one of the heart’s four chambers, and take over when the ventricle cannot pump oxygenated blood to the aorta and throughout the body.

“I wasn’t feeling very well,” Boekeloo said, explaining why he was driving east on 95th Street, trying to get to the hospital at 4440 W. 95th St. He crossed Cicero Avenue, but only made it to the White Castle parking lot on the corner, when he lost consciousness.

Baisone-Gazda, a nurse at Christ for 28 years, had just left her mother’s bedside at the hospital when she saw the commotion in the parking lot and came over. After determining that Boekeloo was having a heart attack, she revived him using CPR, and left when the ambulance arrived.

Boekeloo remained hospitalized for months before receiving the LVAD the following April, and told everyone he met about the nurse who saved his life, hoping to meet and thank her.

“I even told her once, when she came in to draw my blood. But she didn’t say anything until another nurse confided that she might be the one I was looking for.”

The two have since become close friends, and were joking between themselves during the dinner.

“This was not the only time she saved a life,” said Boekeloo.

“It’s just part of the job. When these things happen, it does make you became a nurse,” said Baisone-Gazda, a Burbank resident who has worked at the hospital for 28 years.

“It was amazing. Think of the best day of your life and multiply it by a million,” said Boekeloo, trying to describe the day he got a new lease on life.

At a nearby table, Ronald Walton, 63, a lifelong Oak Lawn resident, was celebrating with his mother, Dorothy, 88, who serves as his caregiver.

“We help each other,” she said.

Walton proudly showed of his own battery pack slung around his shoulder, which keeps his heart pumping when he is out and about. When he goes to bed at night, he explained that he plugs himself into an electrical outlet.

“It’s excellent. I have no complaints at all,” said Walton, explaining that the left side of his heart stopped working when he was 61.

“At least it happened after I retired as a switchman for Santa Fe Railroad,” he said. “I couldn’t work with this.

“After being on life-support, I was out of the hospital 12 days after it was inserted,” he said.

   Walton said the VAD won’t prevent him from getting a heart transplant in the future, but he is happy with the pump.

“It’s a part of me now. I can do just about everything I did before. I don’t go up on the roof anymore, but that is a good thing,” he said with a smile.

Someone else smiling at the party was Antone Tatooles MD. The director of the ventricular assist program at Christ Hospital toured the room chatting with his patients, as well as others who received heart and lung transplants, after keynote speaker Dan Lietz, Chicago Metro coordinator of the Secretary of State’s Organ/Tissue Donor Program stressed the importance of organ donation in saving lives.

“We do about 100 VAD surgeries a year,” said Tatooles. “Our department is one of the busiest in the U.S., and one of the leaders in new technology,” he said.

“It’s overwhelming to see all these people doing so well,” Tatooles said, when asked what it was like to look around and see so many people he operated on returning to health. “It really is the best gift you could get (as a doctor). “At nearly every table there is someone with a VAD. It would be more amazing if you could have seen them before. Some couldn’t breathe on their own.”

“You’re all miracles,” Ken Lukhard, president of Advocate Christ Medical Center, told the group.

“Life is a precious gift…as a person of faith, I often just glance up to the ninth floor roof where there is a big cross, and I just thank God that he is there and using amazingly gifted people to save lives here every day,” Luckhard added.