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Kent Tekulve

A donated heart gives him another big save.

During his 16-year career as a relief pitcher, Kent Tekulve was considered one of Major League Baseball’s best closers. When the game was on the line, Kent was often summoned from the bullpen and frequently made the big save.

In 2013, when Kent’s life was on the line, a team of heart specialists from Allegheny General Hospital made one of their most memorable saves: they extended Kent’s life by replacing his ailing heart with a healthy donor heart.

“It has been an unbelievable turnaround,” said Kent, now 68. “Last year I wondered if I would be around for another baseball season. And now, I’m back to work as a Pirates analyst for ROOT Sports. Thanks to my new heart, I have the gift of time to do more with my life.”

Like many other professional athletes, Kent kept himself in peak physical condition during the prime of his career. His endurance was so great that he set several MLB records for the number of games and innings pitched. But after retiring in 1989, Kent began to stray away from adhering to a healthy lifestyle.

“When I was young and thin, I could eat whatever I wanted,” said Kent, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1974 to 1985. “I didn’t have to worry about putting on weight. Unfortunately, those habits eventually caught up with me, and I suffered a heart attack in 2001.”

Kent Tekulve
Retired 16-year career relief pitcher
Heart transplant, 2013

In order to open up his narrowed coronary arteries, Kent had to have percutaneous coronary intervention. However, because of damage sustained during his heart attack, his heart was not fully pumping blood into his ventricles with each heartbeat.

“During the next 12 years, my heart became weaker, and it became more difficult to do the things I took for granted before,” Kent recalls. “Finally, late in 2013, my heart pretty much just gave out. At that point, my heart was basically twitching instead of beating. That was a very scary time.”

On Christmas Eve 2013, Kent was rushed to Allegheny General Hospital, where he was told he needed a heart transplant. By this time, he was suffering from severe heart failure. The challenge would be to keep Kent alive until a donor heart could be found.

The AGH Heart Failure team surgically implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) into Kent. This mechanical pump helps assist a weakened heart muscle that can no longer supply oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. For patients such as Kent, an LVAD serves as a “bridge to transplant.”

“Mr. Tekulve is a perfect example of the lifesaving potential of mechanical heart assistance in the setting of severe heart failure,” said Raymond Benza, MD, Medical Director of the AGH Advanced Heart Failure, Transplantation, Mechanical Circulatory Support and Pulmonary Hypertension Program, part of the Allegheny Health Network Cardiovascular Institute. “Thanks to this advanced technology, he was not only able to survive until a donor heart became available, but he was also able to stabilize his overall health at the time of transplant. This improved his chances of a successful long-term outcome.”

Kent’s physical strength was put to the test during the next nine months. He also had to deal with the uncertainty of finding a suitable donor.

“I was okay for a while but eventually I became so weak that I had to take a leave of absence from my job at ROOT Sports,” he said. “Meanwhile, I kept on hoping a heart would be found, but I knew it was a race against time. When you are in this situation, you don’t know where the finish line is. It could be a few months or several years until they find a suitable match.”

During the morning of Sept. 5, 2014, Kent finally got the phone call he was waiting for.

“I had just woken up and was preparing to go to PNC Park, where we were running a fantasy camp, when I got a call from AGH. A member of the transplant team said, ‘Mr. Tekulve, we have a new heart for you. How soon can you be here?’ I was still a little groggy and didn’t fully comprehend what I was hearing. I remember saying, ‘Oh, okay. I’ll be over in a few minutes.’ Then I called my boss to tell him I wouldn’t be able to attend fantasy camp because another appointment just came up,” Kent recalled with a chuckle.

That same morning, Stephen Bailey, MD, AGH heart transplant surgeon, successfully removed Kent’s diseased heart and replaced it with a healthy donor heart. Within a week, Kent was discharged and began his recovery at home.

“I was pleasantly surprised how well I recovered from surgery,” said Kent. “I can’t thank my medical team at AGH enough for their outstanding care. My doctors clearly explained what would happen to me each step of the way. That meant a lot to my family and me.”

Like other patients adjusting to a new heart, Kent must follow a number of precautions. To prevent organ rejection, he has to take immunosuppressive drugs. He also must follow certain safeguards to reduce his risk of infection. But overall, Kent has made an amazing recovery and his future prognosis is excellent.

“Kent didn’t experience any setbacks and is doing very well today,” said Dr. Benza. “He had a very positive outlook, which helped him get through this difficult process. He is the perfect role model for other patients who are preparing for a heart transplant.”

Kent’s voice starts to choke up when he talks about the donor who provided him with a new heart. “You never know who your donor is. But I feel a deep connection to that person, and I’m grateful that he or she gave me the gift of life. Organ donation is something that’s very important to me, and I hope to encourage more people to register as organ, eye or tissue donors.”

Today, Kent is back to enjoying his favorite everyday activities and has resumed his position as a Pirates television analyst. Above all, he just feels grateful to be alive and healthy again.

“Because of this gift, I was able to be here for the birth of my fourth and fifth grandchild. I owe it to my donor, my doctors and my family to take good care of my new heart and make this extra time productive.”