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New Heart, New Kidney, New Life

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Posted 6/29/2014

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Mike Willet had always been active. The avid outdoorsman had hunted all around the country, as well as in his own backyard. The Beatrice, NE native's law office is decorated with bunches of trophies he bagged on those hunting expeditions along with photos of Willet and his son during their outings. But it was one morning in early 2011 that would shift Willet's focus from his love for hunting to a fight for life. "I didn't have any symptoms at all, of any kind," recalls Willet while thinking back to that day. "I walked across the bedroom floor and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor -- just in mid-stride. The chest pain was really severe." Willet had a massive heart attack. By the time paramedics from Beatrice made it to his home five miles southwest of Wymore and then to a Lincoln hospital, Willet barely had any life left in him. "I remember hearing one of the paramedics say 'He's not going to make it to Lincoln'," Willet recalled. That paramedic knew what he was talking about. "As soon as I got there, I died -- that's what the doctors told my wife. Somehow they were able to revive me. They also told her if I was going to have any chance at survival, I needed to be taken to the med center," Willet said. "Several staff members told my wife and my son if there was someone who could figure out how to save me, it would be Dr. Um," recounted Willet, referring to transplant surgeon Dr. John Um. "They also said to my wife 'We call him MacGyver for a reason because if there's someone who can figure out a way to keep your husband alive, it's going to be Dr. Um'." And that's exactly what Dr. Um did. Willet woke up two weeks later at The Nebraska Medical Center. "It was a bit of an educated guess as to whether he would survive all this," remembers Dr. Um. "We took it on faith that he would recover and we initiated all these therapies with the hope he would eventually have a full recovery." When Willet regained consciousness he had both a left ventricular assist device and right ventricular assist device - two small pumps attached to his heart - keeping him alive. 60 days later, he went home to Wymore with the LVAD still implanted as he prepared for home kidney dialysis. "Because the pump they kept me on to get me from Lincoln to Omaha wouldn't pump enough blood, I lost my kidneys," said Willet. As he was about to start dialysis at home, he got the call to come back to the hospital for a simultaneous heart and kidney transplant. Willet became the second patient in Nebraska to receive both a heart and kidney in the same procedure. "Each of the individual operations has their own set of potential pitfalls and complications," said Dr. Um. "It's a testament to both the cardiovascular services and renal services that we were able to perform this in a multidisciplinary manner." Willet went home from the hospital 11 days later, not only with a new heart and kidney, but with a new outlook on the life-saving work being done at The Nebraska Medical Center. "The doctors refer to me as their miracle man because there's no way I should be here," said Willet. "One of those times I died, I should've stayed dead. There were people who went above and beyond at every step of this. If you said make a list of the people who touched my life and you're never going to forget, that list is as long as my arm. I'd go back there any time for anything. If you're going to have a chance, that's where I want to be."