Surgeon Thomas Bombeck Traded Hearts at Stanford and Now Is Back at Work in His Illinois O.R.
Near death three years ago, Bombeck was given an 18-year-old girl's heart in a transplant at California's Stanford Medical Center. Today, he jokes, he has one problem with it: "When a good-looking 21-year-old boy walks by, it gets palpitations."
In more serious moments, he acknowledges his debt to the girl, who died in a motorcycle accident. His experience as a doctor has taught him, he says, that "donor families are very intelligent, with a great deal of compassion for other people."
Why did Bombeck need a heart transplant at 41? "I am a classic A-type personality," he says, using psychologists' jargon for a workaholic. "If I'm not doing five things at once, I'm unhappy." A Kansas City, Mo. liquor store owner's son, Bombeck studied medicine at St. Louis University. (He and his wife, Carmelita, met on a blind date in 1960 and live in Oak Park, Ill. with their three children.) He came to the University of Illinois Medical College in Chicago in 1967 and plunged into a 16-hour-a-day schedule. "I was determined to be one of the youngest full professors of surgery in the United States," Bombeck recalls. "I was proposed for a professorship at 36, and had a heart attack at 37."
He spent six difficult weeks in the hospital that time, but then went on a strict diet, began waterskiing—and resumed his taxing professional regimen. In November 1976 severe chest pains struck at a critical point during an operation. "I called for someone else to come in and finish," he says, "but there was no one around. So I stood there for an hour, finished the procedure, walked out of the operating room and fainted."
A coronary bypass in 1977 did not help; Bombeck's condition deteriorated rapidly. In July 1978 a transplant seemed his only hope, so he was flown to Stanford. Almost on arrival he went into cardiac arrest, and a desperate search for a heart began. "When I woke up three days later," Bombeck recalls, "I could suddenly think again. It was like somebody turning on all kinds of lights." The recovery wasn't easy. "I had several episodes of rejection," he says, "so I spent an utterly horrible two months in the intensive-care unit, where I ate several residents alive, and a few nurses as garnish."
Of 217 Stanford heart-transplant recipients, 32 percent have lived at least five years; 81 are still alive. One has lived 11 years; the world record is 13. Bombeck, a beneficiary of Stanford's new antirejection techniques, takes 22 pills a day, including medicine to keep his system from rejecting the heart. The medication may have given him a potbelly, but, he notes, "that's way ahead of what was in second place."
Bombeck does not dwell on past crises or potential complications. (He still drinks and smokes.) Though he looked at his old heart, he left it in a Stanford pathology lab. "If you take a carburetor out and replace it," he explains, "you don't put the old one on your mantel."