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Vickroy: Frankfort man bides time on heart transplant list

Heart transplant wait times depend on a number of factors, including a patient’s blood type, his condition and, of course, the availability of a heart, according to Dr. Geetha Bhat, medical director of the heart transplant program and mechanical assist device center at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

Unfortunately, there are many more patients waiting for a heart than there are hearts available, Bhat said. In general, she said, the public is more knowledgeable about the importance of organ donation, thanks to organizations such as Gift of Hope, “but the need is still great.”

And filling that need continues to be a challenge.

Give a Hand for Frank’s Heart will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St., Merrionette Park. Call (708) 388-8881 or visit http://giveahandforfranksheart.org/.

For more information on how organ donation works, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing at www.unos.org/.

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Updated: April 7, 2014 1:22PM



Frank Obodzinski has learned to be a patient man. Still, it’s the waiting that takes the greatest toll.

Since June 2011, Obodzinski has been on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network list for a heart transplant. The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) runs the transplant network under contract with the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And while it’s hopeful that Obodzinski is high on that list, designated as 1A status, he understands the obstacles that still stand in his way — time and competition.

UNOS reports that most Americans waiting for a new heart are in his age group, 50 to 64, and most on the list have his blood type, O positive. Above all else, for a heart transplant to take place, there first must be a selfless person with the foresight to designate himself a donor.

Meanwhile, Obodzinski waits. And waits.

Inside his Frankfort townhouse, the divorced father of two wrestles with the reality of a life on pause. He knows his condition is worsening. He knows the only hope he has for one day hanging with his adult kids again or working on cars again or returning to his warehouse job rests on someone else’s generosity and misfortune.

“It’s rough,” he said. “When I was younger, I thought organ donation was just about being cut up like an autopsy. Now I know it means life to someone else.”

For a guy who was used to being busy, the waiting is excruciating.

“I was always in good shape,” Obodzinski, 53, said. “I always ate well, not a lot of junk. And I didn’t smoke or do drugs, well, until now. Now I’m on all kinds of drugs.”

In addition to lifesaving medications, Obodzinski is being kept alive by a Left Ventrical Assist Device, known as an LVAD or “bridge to transplant.” The mechanical pump helps compensate for the congenital weakness that has put him in this compromised state.

Obodzinski, who grew up in Burbank and graduated from Reavis High School, suffers from a coronary artery fistula. His father had the same condition, in which the pulmonary artery and the aorta are fused together. His father died from it.

“It’s a birth defect that is hard to diagnose,” he said. “Usually they only find it in autopsies.”

Despite always being in good shape, Obodzinski said he started experiencing dizziness and shortness of breath when he was 40. His doctor at the time told him he was probably working too much.

But after his dad died, he moved to Frankfort to be closer to his mom. He also found a new doctor, one that ordered a bunch of tests.

“They found this with a throat scope (transesophageal echocardiogram),” he said.

Since then, he’s had the LVAD procedure and a heart pacemaker/defibrillator installed. Both procedures have helped, but the pacemaker reminds him regularly of his desperate state.

Whenever his heart goes out of rhythm, which is too often, he said, the pacemaker shocks it back into measure.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” Obodzinski said.

Once he was shocked three times while bringing in groceries. The worst was when he was jolted during a date with his girlfriend, Julianne George.

“We spent our second date in the hospital,” he said. “She stayed the whole night with me.”

“He’s a very good man; he deserves a good woman,” George said. “That’s what I’m trying to be.”

Last week, Obodzinski’s status was upgraded from 1B to 1A on the organ donation list.

Dr. Geetha Bhat, medical director of the heart transplant program and mechanical assist device center at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, explained the difference.

Patients who are 1B typically are being kept alive by heart pumps but have no other serious issues. The pump is helping them to live a somewhat normal life.

When a patient is designated as 1A, Bhat said, it typically is because he’s not doing well, even with the pump. Sometimes the patient suffers from infection or fluid retention. These patients are considered top priority, she said.

Bhat said Christ is among the top five hospitals in the nation in terms of mechanical pump placement. Last year, through a program called Destination Therapy, Christ installed nearly 100 permanent assist devices.

For many patients, the device is enough for them to function regularly, and it can even help with other ailments, such as kidney trouble, Bhat said. But for Obodzinski, the pump is not keeping him symptom-free, she said.

Just walking up stairs is exhausting, he said. He needs help leaving the building, changing his dressings, even taking a shower.

“The pump is helping him maintain some stability,” Bhat said. “But due to complications, he is now considered top priority.”

Obodzinski was hospitalized last week because of fluid retention. Doctors were able to drain 7 pounds of liquid, George said, and he went home Monday with an IV and IV pump.

A benefit planned on his behalf is scheduled for Saturday, but George said she’s not sure Obodzinski will be able to attend.

“I know he’d like to go,” she said.

But then, he’d like to do a lot of things.

Because the right side of his heart worked so hard for so long to compensate for the left side’s failing, it also is struggling. He is basically being kept alive by the heart device. His only hope for a normal future is a heart transplant.

So he waits.

The LVAD runs on batteries that Obodzinski changes throughout the day. He wears a holster to hold the batteries in place while out in public, which is not often. Most days, he passes the time simply talking with George or his kids, Britt and Ryan. He also likes to watch movies and has an impressive collection.

But what he wants most to do is enjoy the simple things in life again — to be able to help with housework, to be able to take George out on a proper date.

Last year, 19 heart transplants were performed at Christ, Bhat said. The hospital has had Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) certification since January 2013. Still, expenses easily can mount for patients in such serious straits.

In addition to Saturday’s benefit, a fund has been set up for Obodzinski. To donate, make checks payable to “Give a Hand for Frank’s Heart” and mail to The Private Bank, 1500 Essington Road, Joliet, IL 60435.



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