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Krystian and Anna Marut’s journey to a double-organ transplant began with the police showing up at Anna’s door in the middle of the night. Her husband had been involved in an accident, they told her. She needed to come to University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, right away.
Fearing the worst, Anna packed up her 10-year-old daughter Kelly and a few personal things and drove the two hours from their home in Lake Villa, Illinois, to Madison. On her way there, she finally learned what had happened: Krystian suffered a major heart attack, and doctors were working on him in the emergency room.
Anna and Krystian didn’t return to their home until two months later. By that time, Krystian had undergone countless surgeries, including one that gave him the gift of life with a new heart and kidney.
A crisis far from home
Krystian, 51, was on a fishing trip in Wisconsin with friends when the heart attack happened. He was trying to get to sleep in his truck and started feeling pain in his chest. He opened the truck door, thinking the cool air would help, but eventually he had to crawl out of the vehicle and use his cell phone to call his friends in the truck next door.
They called 911, and Camp Douglas EMS arrived to take him to a helipad where UW Health Med Flight took over his care and brought him to University Hospital.
“We were on the ground for less than 15 minutes and we were on our way to Madison, so it just happened that the timing, worked out very well, said Bryan Herzog, a nurse with Med Flight. The fast decision-making by both EMS and the Med Flight crew proved to be critical in Krystian’s outcome.
“They said a heart attack and carbon monoxide poisoning can have the same symptoms, so they weren’t sure what it was,” Krystian said. “I felt like I was suffocating.”
At University Hospital, Anna learned her husband’s heart had stopped. The Med Flight team were doing CPR as he was brought to the emergency department. The extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) response team was called, and they quickly started ECMO, a form of life support that keeps blood moving through the body. Essentially, the machine was doing the work of Krystian’s heart. Doctors moved him to the catheterization lab, where seven stents were placed to restore blood flow.
At first Anna stayed in a hotel hospital staff members reserved for her. But as she realized she was going to be in Madison for a while, she rented an apartment for her, Kelly and Kelly’s two older brothers, who took turns coming to Madison to watch their sister while Anna stayed at Krystian’s side from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. “Kelly didn’t want to go home,” Anna said. “She wanted to stay in Madison to be close to her dad. She even slept with Krystian’s clothes at night because they smelled like him.” As it turned out, the support provided by Anna and their children was also lifesaving for Krystian.
As the weeks continued, Krystian experienced ups and downs with his health. His surgeons, Yu Xia, MD and Josh Hermsen, MD, transitioned his heart support from ECMO to an Impella 5.5® device while he waited for a donor heart to become available for transplant.
“Krystian received the first Impella 5.5® placed at University Hospital as a bridge to transplant,” said cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Yu Xia. “This was also the first use of the improved second-generation device in Wisconsin, and among the first few placed in the United States. It was exactly what Krystian needed to stay alive, but given what he had already endured, I was not certain that he would survive to transplant.”
What’s more, doctors didn’t know if his kidneys would recover from the strain that had been placed on them, either.
The team decided Krystian also needed a new kidney, a relatively rare procedure. Although UW Health is among the largest transplant centers in the nation, only 31 other people received a combined heart/kidney transplant in the last 30 years.
The gift of life
Doctors had placed Krystian on the wait list for a new heart and kidney near the end of December but had to deactivate him due to his blood infection.
“Once again, the team worked together to clear his infection and quickly got him healthy enough to reactivate on the transplant waiting list,” says Dr. Hermsen.
On Jan. 3, 2023, the team learned a heart and kidney were available for him.
“I could tell there was something going on, because there were a lot of doctors coming and going outside his room,” Anna said. “They were a little bit mysterious with their comments, because they didn’t want to tell us until they were sure the organs were a match.”
Krystian underwent the heart transplant on Jan. 3 and the kidney transplant on Jan. 4. “The very next day I woke up from sedation,” he said, “and I’ve felt great ever since. I could finally walk without being short of breath.”
As he recovered, Krystian appreciated the support he received from the doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital. “I had never been in the hospital before,” he said. “I was overwhelmed with the organization, with the warmth from the nurses and doctors. It gave me comfort knowing I was in good hands.”
“We credit much of his success to Anna, who saw him every day and really advocated for him,” says Dr. Xia. “At the beginning, even a simple walk was a huge win for Krystian, and after all he had been through, it was rewarding to see how hard Krystian worked to recover and get home to be with his three children.”
The family returned home to Illinois Jan. 25, and shortly after he got home, Krystian started cardiac rehabilitation at a local facility. He returned to work part time at the construction company he owns, and he was back to full-time work by mid-April.
“I feel great,” he said. “There are no complications so far. I’m getting better and better.”