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A Grateful Heart

Health care success stories told by the people who lived them


A grateful heart

Ketan Thanki and his family

On a warm spring day, you might find Ketan Thanki playfully chasing his little girl in their suburban Atlanta backyard. The 43-year-old dad is enjoying every giggle. And, he's grateful for every beat of his heart – which is filled with a father's love.

He knows he's a lucky man. There was a time when merely walking was a struggle for him. Just a few short years ago, a failing heart seriously limited his every move. But, the history of his health troubles actually goes back to when he was a boy.

Childhood illness takes a toll

When he was about 12 years old, Ketan had a serious infection – viral myocarditis, a viral infection of the heart. Doctors believe the illness resulted in lasting damage to his heart. But, the first indication of this didn't come until he was an adult – in 2002 at the age of 34. That's when he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. He had a pacemaker installed. And, when he received a second one, in 2005, his heart issues seemed to subside.

But, over the next few years, it became clear that his heart troubles were not behind him. There were periods when Ketan felt fine – but he also had episodes of dizziness and breathlessness. More than once he went to the emergency room for fluid buildup in his lungs related to declining heart function. There came a time when he couldn't even walk the 50 yards from his office to the parking lot without having to stop and rest.

His heart was failing – unable to pump blood adequately to his brain and the rest of his body.

In the early months of 2010, Ketan's doctor advised him to seriously consider a heart transplant. It might be his last chance. For Ketan, this was a difficult idea to accept. He had hoped other treatments could help him avoid that. And, he couldn't help but think of the grief another family would face so he could live.

Yet, he realized he had declined so far that there was no more questioning the need for a transplant. He began to prepare himself mentally and spiritually, he says.

After an extensive evaluation in April 2010, Ketan was put on a transplant list. "Uncertainty was the toughest part," he says. He worried about the burden this put on his wife – and how'd they keep things "normal" for their then 3-year-old daughter.

UnitedHealthcare provides 'a great relief'

But, even as the journey ahead weighed on his mind, he knew he had the support of his family. And, help came swiftly from another source, too, he says – UnitedHealthcare, his health care insurer.

In fact, the very day Ketan returned from his hospital evaluation, he received comforting news.

"I got a call from the UnitedHealthcare nurse/case manager before I even got settled in at home," he says.

She reassured Ketan that he was in good hands. His transplant center of choice, Emory University Hospital, was part of UnitedHealthcare's Center of Excellence program – indicating it met high standards of care.

But, this wasn't just a courtesy call, Ketan says. His UnitedHealthcare nurse specialized in helping heart failure patients. She asked him questions about his condition – and provided guidance. And, she told him he could call her any time he had questions about his symptoms.

She also was able to relieve one of his biggest concerns right from that first call: How could his family possibly pay for such an expensive procedure?

UnitedHealthcare would help provide coverage,* she assured him. "She said, 'We have spoken to the hospital – and everything is in order,'" Ketan says. "That was a relaxing moment – a great relief."

And, during the next few months leading up to his surgery, he did call on her. She also served as an advocate for him through the transplant process – working with the hospital to ensure his needs were met. She was "constantly in touch" with the transplant center regarding his case, Ketan says.

"She was the greatest assurance before I even underwent the transplant," Ketan says. And, he's been grateful to her ever since, he says.

'We have a heart for you'

After he was placed on the transplant list, Ketan's condition continued to worsen. He spent more than a month in a hospital intensive care unit. One day in mid-July, an ICU nurse who was caring for him left to take a call. "She came back in and told me, 'Mr. Thanki, we have a heart for you,'" he says.

At midnight that same day, the cardiothoracic surgeon, David Vega, MD, answered Ketan's last-minute questions. And, as Dr. Vega left the room he reminded Ketan that the next time they talked he'd have a new heart.

Following the transplant surgery, Ketan's family was asked to prepare for some uneasy news. His new heart had failed.

To save his life, Dr. Vega had installed two external VADs (ventricular assist devices). They would share some of the new heart's workload.

Ketan would be kept sedated. And, his chest would need to remain open and protected with a plastic wrapping. His family waited anxiously – and after about a week, his new heart was strong enough to beat safely on its own. But, Ketan still had a long way to go. He spent nearly two months in the hospital after his transplant.

Coming home

One of his goals was to get strong enough to return home without a walker. On Sept. 10, 2010, he walked through the door, climbed up 17 steps and hugged his little girl – "a memory you can never forget," he says.

Ketan is back to work, taking business trips and enjoying life with his wife and daughter. He can now take his little girl on walks and lift her in his arms. He's thankful for Dr. Vega and his entire transplant team – who didn't give up on him or his new heart.

And, he's also very grateful for the role UnitedHealthcare played in making his healthy, new life possible.

"You worry about health, about family and all that stuff," Ketan says. "But, UnitedHealthcare... has always been there."

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