Rosenblum: To save his life, heart patient must leave Minnesota

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2012 - 8:09 PM
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Goffrey Duevel and Terace Johnson, a junior at Robbinsdale Cooper High School. Terace and other students there created the “Goffrey Award” to honor his bravery.

Goffrey Duevel's luck finally was changing when I wrote about him in 2011. After surviving childhood cancer, polio and two open-heart surgeries, Duevel, 33, got a new heart in 2008.

He returned to school at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, then was hired as a cardiovascular technologist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview, working where he spent much of his childhood as a patient.

For the first time, Duevel let himself imagine financial security, marriage and kids and, most daringly, good health.

His dreams are back on hold. Duevel's donor heart is failing. He's on 16 medications and can barely walk up stairs. "This is what transplant life is also like, the darker side," Duevel said, "the fear of never being able to start over or start at all."

Yet Duevel, who relearned to walk at 8, is gathering what little strength he has to fight that fear. Just not here.

Two weeks ago, Duevel said emotional goodbyes to friends and colleagues at the U. On Tuesday, he'll meet his new transplant team at Tampa General Hospital, and endure again the physical and psychological rigors of waiting for the call.

"Are you OK with this?" Duevel asked his longtime cardiologist, Dr. Peter Eckman, at his final U checkup in early June.

"I am, I am," Eckman said, as he listened to Duevel's breathing and assessed his swollen ankles. "It's clear we need to give you a new heart," Eckman said, "and I don't have confidence that we can get it fast enough in the Midwest, with current organ-allocation policy."

That policy considers many factors, including body size, family support and urgency. Despite his challenges, Duevel is not in the top tier here. So he's taking a big chance, removing himself from waiting lists in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in favor of Florida, where he's been told wait times are shorter.

Eckman has confidence it's the right move. He has confidence, too, in the transplant team there, led by former U chief of cardiology Les Miller, under whom Eckman studied.

Duevel stands, grabs Eckman in a bear hug. Registered nurse Barbara Graf is next for Duevel's 6-foot-1 embrace. "Whatever's best," Graf said, clearly distressed by Duevel's departure. "He's not going to be totally out of our lives. I know how to find him," Graf said. "He's one of my boys."

Duevel, who grew up in St. Francis with younger brother Garrick, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at 5. In third grade, he was diagnosed with paralysis-causing Guillian-Barre syndrome. Aggressive physical therapy helped him relearn how to walk.

When he was 16, his father died and his mother moved Up North with Garrick. Duevel dropped out of school to work in his grandparents' grocery store, graduating from an alternative school at 20. His heart began failing in 2003, most likely due to chemicals that saved his life as a boy.

He received a new heart on Jan. 12, 2008, hoping for 10 good years at least. But last June, just three years out, Duevel began suffering pain and shortness of breath. In January, while visiting relatives in Florida, he passed out. He's had nine stents implanted in recent months to help open his vessels, "like a little pup tent."

Duevel, who was featured in a U media campaign in 2010, reluctantly resigned from the U's cardiac cath lab in February, continuing to volunteer twice weekly. It gave him "something to get up for," he said.

Another big something was a group of students at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope. Deeply moved by his resilience, they created the "Goffrey Award" to honor Duevel's bravery "during times of life-changing circumstances and uncertainty." Led by junior Terace Johnson, they raised $550 at their "Save a Life" dinner in April, sponsored by Mauer Chevrolet, donating the money to the U for cancer and organ-transplant research.

"The whole group is very sad" about Duevel's leaving, said Johnson, who hopes to keep in touch with her hero via Skype.

Eckman, who has treated Duevel for seven years, also hopes to keep in touch. "We look at these people with amazement and respect," he said. "I hope he finds another heart and comes back to Minnesota."

For now, Duevel is living with relatives in Lake Mary, a little more than an hour's drive from the hospital. Again, he waits.

"That's the worst," Duevel said. "But I continue to believe it will be my turn soon to receive another heart."

Donations to the Goffrey Duevel Benefit Fund can be made at any TCF branch. gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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