SALT LAKE CITY — Decades of planning put physicians at University of Utah Health in the position to save a United States Army veteran whose life was hanging by a thread, as three of his major organs were failing.
"He was so, so, so, so sick," said Dr. Craig Selzman, surgical director of the heart and lung transplant program at University of Utah Hospital. "We didn't really think he had a chance."
Keith Baker, 58, started with heart failure, a condition that worsened over time and ultimately caused irreparable damage to his kidneys. Not long after that, the Yuma, Arizona, native was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. With triple organ failure, he was not believed to be a good candidate for transplant, said Dr. Josef Stehlik, surgeon and director of the heart transplant program at the U.
Stehlik said he received a call from Baker's cardiologist in southwestern Arizona, who said Baker had a strong will to live and deserved the chance to make history.
Recent changes made by the United States Veterans Affairs provided increased options for where veterans are able to receive health care. University of Utah Health is one of the nationally designated heart transplant centers for the VA — meaning Baker was able to come to Utah for a chance at living.
"I thought I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel," said Baker, who was denied life-saving transplant surgery twice before. "I never had a fear of dying, I just knew I wanted to live."
And, while he doesn't believe he deserved it, he wanted the chance to be able to help his parents, who are getting on in years.
Three weeks ago, a single donor was identified to give Baker the opportunity of a longer life. And the group of U. physicians agreed to dive in.
"He had some level of resiliency ... he could not be denied," Selzman said. "We had no choice but to do this because he was so doggone ready to do this."
It was a long procedure, requiring many skilled hands from multiple disciplines — and the kidney had to sit on ice for eight hours while Baker recuperated from his heart and liver transplant, said Dr. Jeffrey Campsen, abdominal surgeon and director of the kidney transplantation program at the U.
"The kidney can live longer on its own than the other organs," he said. All three of the transplanted organs required special care, but because of the unique collaborative approach at the U., Campsen said, it was a success.
"Despite our initial pessimism, he proved us all wrong," Selzman said, adding that Baker showed a "spirit of survival" that gave each of his caregivers hope.
"I wasn't going to give up," Baker said.
Baker served as an automotive mechanic in the U.S. Army from September 1981 to September 1983, when he was involved in an accident, hospitalized for eight months and ultimately medically discharged.
"Anything is possible ... you've just got to go into it with a good attitude and just try and stay alive," he said.
Baker, who is three weeks out from the major surgery in Utah, said he didn't realize how sick he had been. "I missed out on what it feels like to feel good ... now I know what it means to feel good.
"I feel young," he said.
I thought I had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. I never had a fear of dying, I just knew I wanted to live.
–Keith Baker, 58, who was denied life-saving transplant surgery twice before.
Stehlik said Baker is a good example of "why we come to work every day: We can help people who are in pretty bad shape for a really long time and get them back to active lives."
Triple organ transplants are extremely rare, as only 25 liver, heart and kidney transplants have been done in the U.S. since 1989. Only two have been performed across the country this year, including Baker's surgery at University of Utah Health.
Baker's was made possible by a collaboration between the local VA, the VA in Phoenix and the national office in Washington, D.C., which funded the multi-organ transplant procedure.
"Donation as a whole is a rare gift. This one is incredibly rare," said Camron Dovalina, director of organ recovery at Utah's DonorConnect, which facilitates the match and delivery process of available organs across the Intermountain West. He said this particular donor was also able to give the other kidney and a pancreas to another grateful survivor at the same time.
Kidney and pancreas transplants are more commonly done in tandem, Dovalina said.
For more information about organ donation, visit donorconnect.life.