Greg Rathe was so exhausted two months ago that he nodded off during the press conference where he was introduced as Nebraska's first artificial heart recipient.
Rathe, now alert and looking ahead, went home Friday, just two weeks after getting further treatment — a heart and kidney transplant — at the Nebraska Medical Center.
The 42-year-old, who received his first heart transplant in 1996, has such startling recuperative powers that a buddy gave him a ballcap with the Superman “S” on it. Rathe plans to make it his fishing hat.
“I honestly didn't think I was gonna make it through this time,” Rathe told The World-Herald.
Dr. Eugenia Raichlin, an advanced heart-failure specialist at the med center, called Rathe's release from the hospital “a big victory.” His heart and kidney are working well, she said.
“He's a very strong person,” she said. “I'm not surprised. I'm pleased.”
Shortly before his release Friday, when two aunts were scheduled to pick him up, Raichlin encouraged him to stay hydrated.
“Drink whatever you like,” Raichlin said.
“Yeah,” Rathe joked. “Beer.”
“No,” his doctor said, chuckling.
What a comeback. His initial transplanted heart gave out early this year, and he received the artificial heart on March 14. Most patients receive a simpler left ventricular device, but both Rathe's right and left ventricles had failed.
Dr. John Um, heart transplant surgeon at the med center, said Rathe may have been “within a day of his death” when surgeons installed the artificial heart. Rathe said the device beat noisily and tangibly through his chest.
Rathe, who lives in the country near Weeping Water, Neb., looked wiped out and ashen a couple weeks after getting the artificial heart. “I was tired, I know,” he said Friday. “I didn't think I looked that bad. But everybody says I did.”
Um said the artificial device did its job, stabilizing him and preparing him for transplantation.
But Rathe was still in bad shape. He suffered nosebleeds, infections and pneumonia. He had no appetite and had to be fed through a tube down his nose. He was on dialysis for kidney failure. He also underwent a blood cleansing procedure to remove antibodies that would have attacked newly transplanted organs.
The doctors wanted a great match to minimize the threat of rejection of the foreign organs. They got a good match, Um said.
“And it was a just-in-time match, so to speak,” Um said.
During about 11 hours of surgery on May 17, Um and Dr. Mike Moulton removed the artificial heart and put in a donor heart. Dr. Michael Morris installed a new kidney.
Rathe said he felt better as soon as he woke up from surgery.
“You can just breathe,” he said. “You can feel your body again.”
He's been bored. His cousins pitched in and bought him an iPad. He looks at antiques on the Internet and watches Spiderman and Batman movies.
He's down to 111 pounds from his typical 155, but his appetite's back. He ate apple pie and drank a chocolate malt Friday morning, then had another malt.
He doesn't deny concern about infections and rejection. “It's a long road to recovery, I'll tell you what. I've got to have my daughter drive me around because I can't drive. Can't go to work for six months,” he said. “I used to have arms. Now they're just sticks.”
The former truck driver, most recently the operator of a front-end loader, is going to walk, swim and lift light weights to gain strength. He'll eat ice cream and visit friends.
His 21-year-old daughter, Alex, will live with him a while and cook for him.
And within the next couple of weeks, he said, he'll do what he really loves. He'll go camping and fishing.
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