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Serious Medicine. Extraordinary Care.

Expert Care, Mechanical Heart Assist Device and a "Series of Miracles" Keep Burwell Man Alive

After more than a month in the hospital, Doug Gebhardt went home with a new perspective.

“Coming back from death is a very strange thing,” the 55 year old Burwell, Neb. man said. “My life just began again.”

Gebhardt’s struggle is not over. But he says making it this far is a victory in its own way. The trouble started in the middle of the night December 7, 2009.

“It felt like someone had reached inside my chest and squeezed my heart,” Gebhardt remembered.

The feeling was the beginning of a heart attack. Gebhardt’s wife died suddenly less than two years earlier. His focus that night in December was staying alive for his four sons. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital. Doctors in Lincoln, Neb. found the right ventricle of Gebhardt’s heart was not functioning at all. They performed quintuple bypass surgery. Several days later, the doctor delivered crushing news.

“He said without a transplant, I had maybe two days to live,” Gebhardt said. “That’s when they sent me to Omaha. Despite the blizzard outside, Gebhardt made it safely to The Nebraska Medical Center.

“Within hours, he was in the operating room,” said Ioana Dumitru, MD, heart failure specialist at The Nebraska Medical Center. “Doug had already been placed on ECMO (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) to help oxygenate his blood,” explained John Um, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at The Nebraska Medical Center. “We transitioned him from that to an RVAD, or right ventricular assist device along with a short-term device called a Centrimag.”

These two temporary devices bought the heart failure team at the medical center extra time to monitor Gebhardt and assess how best to treat him. They determined his heart was too weak to function without the mechanical device. It is still connected to his heart. Gebhardt is now awaiting a transplant.

The device assisting Gebhardt’s heart is known as a PVAD (paracorporeal ventricular assist device). PVADs are different from LVADs (left ventricular assist devices). An LVAD is placed inside the body and pumps the blood from the ventricle into the aorta. The PVAD is outside the body and offers flexibility; it can be used to assist patients with failure in the left or right ventricle. “The device isn’t necessarily new technology,” said Dr. Um. “But with the growth of our heart failure program, and the complexity and variety of the patients we’re treating now, it’s beneficial to have technology like this available.”

When Doug Gebhardt left the hospital, he did so with two tubes extending from his chest to a fist-sized pump at his waist. The wheeled suitcase he carried behind him contained the rest of the device. “I feel so strong; I’m getting better every minute.” His eagerness to get back home to his four boys, age 7, 12, 15, and 18, was written all over his face. “When my seven year old saw me awake in the hospital, his eyes got so wide,” Gebhardt remembers. “He just held on to my arm so tightly. They almost became orphans. I lost my wife a year and a half ago, so this has all been very difficult on them.”

“His recovery was incredible,” Dr. Dumitru said. “He did come back from the dead.” After spending much of the winter in the hospital, Gebhardt is looking forward to spring and a little light exercise to keep him strong. Gebhardt was otherwise healthy before his heart attack. He was not overweight. He exercised regularly, biking 10 to 12 miles a day. He believes that, combined with the expert care he received at The Nebraska Medical Center played a big part in his recovery.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “The nurses, the doctors, I’ve met countless wonderful people and I have tremendous feelings for everyone here.” “There is a lot of hope,” he continued. “They told me my recovery was a series of miracles, so I have reason to be hopeful.”