Palos Hills resident Kathryn Brzezinski (second from left) gathers with her care team during a holiday celebration sponsored by Advocate Christ Medical Center. Brzezinski received a ventricular assist device (VAD) and is in a waiting list for a new heart.
The holiday season is a little brighter for patients who were honored last Thursday during a holiday celebration after receiving a heart or lung transplant or a ventricular assist device (VAD) at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
More than 200 people gathered at the Hilton Oak Lawn for the celebration sponsored by Advocate Christ Medical Center. The event offers the patients, their families, heart surgeons, cardiologists, nurses and other staff to rejoice and celebrate the miracles of modern medicine that provides a second chance for a full life. While many of the attendees have received new hearts and in some cases, hearts and lungs, a great number of the guests were VAD patients, meaning they are on a waiting list for a new heart. In some instances, they are not eligible for a heart transplant due to their condition and are being kept alive by a VAD.
Dr. Antone Tatooles, director of the Mechanical Assist Device program at the Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center, explained that the ventricular assist device is actually doing the work of the heart, electronically.
“When the heart is unable to pump the blood through the heart due to various reasons, the VAD is implanted surgically into the heart,” said Tatooles. “It is connected by wires to an exterior computer, which operates on batteries. The patient must wear it 24/7 until they are able to receive a new heart. Without the VAD, many of the guests here today would not be alive.”
He added that the device is for very advanced heart disease. “It is actually an artificial heart. We want our patients to be able to live a normal life, return to work, enjoy their families, etc. They can do all that as long as the pump is kept charged.”
Also present was Dr. Deepak Mital, director of the Kidney Transplant Program at the hospital, who stated that six heart and kidney transplant cases at Advocate Christ Medical Center performed since 2013 have a survival rate of 100 percent.
“That is better than the national average,” he said.
Waiting for a heart is Palos Hills resident Kathryn Brzezinski, 59. She received a VAD on Aug. 26. She refers to it as “a bridge to a transplant.”
“I am on a waiting list for a new heart as I am in compliance with the criteria for eligibility because of my weight and blood type,” she said.
Although she has suffered from congestive heart failure most of her life, she also had gallbladder problems this past summer and approached her doctor about removing her gallbladder. He refused, saying her heart was much too weak and immediately admitted her to the hospital. That was on Aug. 15. She was told that her heart was too enlarged for any heart surgery and 11 days later, she received a VAD, a pacemaker and defibrillator. Two weeks later, they were able to remove her gallbladder.
She is feeling much better and is hoping to return to her job soon, where she has worked for 38 years.
“I will be elated to get a new heart and I am excited to be here celebrating life tonight with these other patients,” she said.
Oak Lawn resident Robert Hirtz, 49, has had a VAD for three years and two months. He recited the amount of time precisely.
His heart problems started in 1998 when he had a bad case of pneumonia, which unknown to him, resulted in his heart becoming enlarged.
“People don’t know that pneumonia can cause enlargement of the heart. I certainly didn’t know and I didn’t treat it seriously. I was young, I kept working, I kept smoking and I was overweight,” he said.
He said all of that was the beginning of his long, slow, downhill journey to the condition he is in now, wearing a VAD, unemployed, on disability and waiting for a new heart.
“A lot of people don’t know that heart failure is the number one killer in America. People need to be aware. It is, in many cases, preventable. It doesn’t have to happen. It can be a matter of lifestyle. Eating fast food, lack of exercise, being overweight can all contribute to heart failure.”
Hirtz said that in 2013, before he received a VAD, his condition had deteriorated so badly he couldn’t complete a sentence due to shortness of breath. He was was so weak, he couldn’t walk.
“When my doctor suggested I get a VAD, I was scared,” said Hirtz. “The thought of it was overwhelming. That was in October of 2013. Then my doctor told me that without a VAD, I wouldn’t make it through December. I agreed to the procedure and here I am, three years later, happy to be at this celebration.”
It turns out that Hirtz is an inspiration to heart patients who have been told that they need a VAD.
“The hospital often calls me to come and talk to potential recipients who are as scared as I was,” said Hirtz. “I come and tell the patients they need to submit to the treatment. I tell them to look at me, I am up walking around, living my life, and that they can, too.
“I am grateful to Advocate Christ Hospital. They saved my life and I am happy to help coach people who need a VAD. I didn’t have anyone to tell me about living with a VAD, so I want to help. I come whenever they call me,” added Hirtz.
Closing the event was Ken Lukhard, CEO and president of Advocate Christ Medical Center. Addressing the attendees as “Walking Miracles” he wished them the best holiday season ever and urged them to absorb it and soak it up.
“Life on this planet is so fleeting for all of us. Let us savor every moment,” Lukhard said.