After near-death experiences, Hometown man’s heart keeps ticking after transplant
Gerald “Jack” Boekeloo may have a new heart, but it still beats to a sentimental tune.
Boekeloo is so grateful for all the chances he’s had in life that he is quickly moved to tears when asked, simply, how he’s feeling.
“I feel great,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I’m doing great. I wish everybody had this feeling. It’s better than winning $200 million in the Lotto.”
While waiting to be discharged from Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn Wednesday, having spent two months there recovering from heart transplant surgery, Boekeloo was overwhelmed with gratitude.
“I wish somebody could pinch me so I could know this is real,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how much better I feel.”
Dr. William Cotts, one of the five cardiologists who cared for Boekeloo during the transplant procedure, confirmed that the prognosis is very good. He is taking immunosuppressants to decrease the chance of infection but, Cotts said, doctors hope to slowly decrease the dosage of the drug.
As hospital officials conducted their final exams and prepared him to go home, Boekeloo retold the story of how he “died” and was brought back to life no fewer than three times in the past 19 months.
The Hometown resident had to pause several times to compose himself and to offer words of comfort to Dawn Bausone-Gazda, the nurse responsible for the first of those revivals, who struggled to keep her own tears at bay.
Boekeloo first learned the meaning of serendipity on Nov. 19, 2011, when he suffered a massive heart attack while driving himself to the hospital. Bausone-Gazda, an Advocate nurse who was on her way home from visiting a sick relative at the hospital, saw the commotion and rushed to help.
“I noticed a man being pulled from a car in the intersection and stopped to see if they needed help,” she recalled. “I realized right away he had no pulse, so I started CPR. He awoke for a bit and then went into cardiac arrest again.”
She continued working on him until paramedics arrived. At the hospital, Boekeloo again succumbed to his condition and again was revived.
Afterward, he searched for months for the mystery woman who had first saved his life. He also continued to receive treatment for his severe heart condition at the hospital.
In February 2012, a left ventrical assist device (VAD) was inserted. Cotts said the device provides life support while a person is waiting for a new heart. It also enables a patient’s other organs to improve during that waiting period.
One day while Boekeloo was receiving treatment, Cheryl Wilson, another nurse at Advocate and best friends with Bausone-Gazda, was called to help set up a line.
Wilson was busy with another patient and asked Bausone-Gazda to tend to Boekeloo’s needs.
“He started talking about a woman who gave him CPR in the intersection of 95th and Cicero and I realized that he was talking about me,” Bausone-Gazda said.
Bausone-Gazda, who also once administered CPR to a heart attack victim while on a return flight from Las Vegas, asked hospital officials if she could reveal her identity.
During a special awards ceremony last July, Bausone-Gazda and Boekeloo were introduced.
They quickly became fast friends. Now, Boekeloo, Bausone-Gazda and Wilson spend holidays together.
“He’s our Uncle Jack,” Wilson said.
On April 13, Boekeloo underwent transplant surgery, receiving the heart of a 22-year-old. The procedure should put an end to his heart failure episodes, even if Boekeloo, who turned 70 on June 7, is certain he has “at least seven more lives” in him.
Only 2,500 heart transplants are conducted each year nationwide, Cotts said. And most of those recipients are in their 40s or 50s.
“The heart is a scarce resource,” Cotts said.
Boekeloo, he added, is lucky not only to receive one but “because he’s been through a lot and there have been a lot of risks along the way.”
Cotts said, “To get to this point, it takes a lot of work but there is some luck involved, too.”
Usually, he added, by the time a patient reaches early to mid-70s, “We’re looking at destination therapy (as opposed to transplant),” Cotts said. “But his condition is good. He has no other significant health problems.”
Boekeloo is divorced. He has no children. Like Bausone-Gazda, he is an avid Cubs fan. He also likes to ride his motorcycle.
But the first thing he plans to do after he gets situated at home is take his best friend, George, out to dinner.
Then he’ll probably reconnect with Bausone-Gazda’s brother, with whom he has become good friends.
“We’re like family now,” Bausone-Gazda said.
She even gave him the blue, tropical style shirt he wore for his discharge Wednesday.
“It’s my birthday present,” he said.