Aurora St. Luke's celebrates heart transplant milestone

Robert Santilli knew better than most what he was in for when he arrived at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center suffering from end stage heart failure. That’s because Santilli is a retired internal medicine physician. Still, he was startled when the topic came up as he sat with family members and caregivers at the hospital.

“And they said your best option is a heart transplant,” he recounted wide-eyed. “And, I kind of looked around. You’re talking to me? There were only four of us in the room, who else?”

Santilli, though, knew he was in the right place. The surgeons at Aurora have done nearly a thousand heart transplants. The hospital has a national reputation for clinical excellence and innovation.

Dr. Frank Downey has performed many of those life-saving transplants and is the surgical director of the medical center’s heart program.

“Understand that you have a place at Aurora St. Luke’s that has been involved in cardiac transplantation since the beginning and continues to offer top notch care,” Downey said confidently of the program he directs.

The hospital really was way out in front in the early days of heart transplantation. The first successful heart transplants were performed in South Africa and California respectively, but those procedures were followed only a few months later by a heart transplant at Aurora St. Luke’s.  That operation performed on Betty Anick was far more successful than its predecessors as Anick lived eight years after the procedure, setting an early record.

That history allows patients with heart failure to go to Aurora St. Luke’s with a measure of confidence. When Tom Demski suffered heart failure brought on by a childhood case of rheumatic fever, he had full confidence in the surgical team assigned to transplant his new heart. He was able to focus less on the nuts and bolts of his operation and instead embrace his faith.

“I just kind of knew I could put my life in God’s hands,” the former hard-hitting UWM baseball standout said as tears welled up in his eyes. “And, if it was his will that I’d make it, I’d be able to survive and if not, then I knew I’d be in a good place too.”

For 20 years Demski has been in a good place indeed. He’s married and has four beautiful children. He coaches his kids and returned to playing baseball himself years ago.
“Every day I’m just so glad to wake up in the morning,” he said with a smile.

Danielle Weston also points to her faith as a source of strength during her journey. Weston not only underwent a heart transplant, she also spent roughly three weeks hooked up to the now famous Jarvik artificial heart as she waited for a compatible donor heart.

“When you sit and think about it, the whole process is definitely a miracle,” Weston said thoughtfully. “It’s just amazing.”

Each of those patients would have died had the families of people killed in sudden accidents been unwilling to donate the organs of their loved ones. The recipients each spoke repeatedly about how lucky they were to get donated organs when they were still strong enough to benefit. 

Dr. Downey waxes philosophical when he talks about organ donation.

“What do we do when a patient dies?” he asked rhetorically. “Well we send a monetary tribute or we send flowers. The monetary tributes are spent and the flowers wither and die, but an organ that’s donated can go on living in a recipient indefinitely.  It’s the one good thing that can come out of a dramatic or unexpected death.”

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