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Transfusion-Free Cardiothoracic Surgery

Robert Teele's Story: From the Bitter Cold of Alaska to the Sunny Warmth of Southern California

In February 1997, a flu epidemic hit Fairbanks, Alaska. Robert K. Teele IV, now 32, remembers being "really sick" that winter, with a high temperature and aches and pains. Ultimately, Teele’s flu caused more havoc than a sore throat, runny nose and fever. Unbeknownst to Teele, the flu virus had attacked his heart—resulting in a condition called cardiomyopathy. In this serious disease, the heart becomes inflamed, the heart muscle weakens, and the heart cannot pump blood efficiently.

Teele’s heart pain led him to his doctor in Fairbanks. It took three visits until the physician detected a heart murmur and tests revealed cardiomyopathy. "My doctor referred me to a cardiologist, who flew in from Anchorage once a week," Robert explains. "He put me on medication to help my heart pump."

By December 1998, Robert's heart had become enlarged. "My heart valves weren't working correctly, and my energy level had plummeted," he notes. "The cardiologist told me to take a leave of absence from work, which I did."

In March, as his condition worsened, Robert flew down to Anchorage – 360 miles away –where he underwent heart catheterization. The news was grim. "The doctors were going to perform a valve replacement at that time," Robert explained, "but with my heart pumping at 11 percent capacity a valve replacement wouldn't work. My only alternative was a heart transplant.”

"I was really scared," Robert continues. "First, Anchorage is far away from the major heart transplant centers around the country. Second, because of my religious beliefs, I don't accept blood products—narrowing my options even more. A friend of ours helped us locate the different transfusion-free heart transplantation programs across the country. Randy Henderson [this program’s manager] was super-responsive and assured us that Keck Hospital of USCcardiothoracic surgeons had the expertise to perform a bloodless heart transplant."

On May 10, 1999, Teele and his parents headed for Los Angeles. An evaluation confirmed the critical nature of Robert's condition, and Teele was admitted to USCUH’s intensive care unit on May 14.

"We were told that it could be a year or two until a donor heart was found," Teele says. “In the meantime, I had to be monitored carefully as my lungs could drown in all the excess fluid that was building up because of the cardiomyopathy."

The looming wait for Robert took a dramatic turn only three days later when a heart was suddenly located. "I was eating breakfast on May 17 when the nurses pulled my tray away and told me that a donor heart may be on the way and I couldn't eat any more."

That day was spent preparing for surgery. Teele received blood-volume building medications while surgeons Vaughn A. Starnes, M.D., and Mark L. Barr, M.D., and their team began preparing for the surgery.

"It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to worry," Teele says. "The surgical team completed the transplant in three and a half hours. I had complete confidence in the bloodless program. The surgeons knew my wishes and were committed to granting them. In addition, Randy (Henderson) was in the operating room during the entire procedure. Everything went incredibly smoothly."

More than a year later, Robert has returned to his life and friends, and is grateful for the second chance provided to him at Keck Hospital of USC. "Families in our transfusion-free program put a lot of trust in our commitment to perform complex surgeries without blood products," says Jay Onga, R.N. "And I feel very good that we can maintain that trust."


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