Rare triple transplant gives Veteran new life - VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
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Rare triple transplant gives Veteran new life

Keith Baker resting in bed after a triple transplant

Army Veteran Keith Baker smiles while recovering from a triple organ transplant – a procedure so rare U.S. doctors had performed just 24 in the last 30 years (photo courtesy of University of Utah Health).

By T.S. Jarmusz
Thursday, December 10, 2020

Keith Baker’s heart was failing.

Then his liver went. Then his kidneys.

In a few years, the once-vibrant Army Veteran found himself frail and bedridden.

Baker needed a triple organ transplant – a procedure so rare U.S. doctors had performed just 24 in the last 30 years. But with two transplant requests denied, what he really needed was a miracle.

“The patient was critically ill,” said Dr. Joseph Stehlik medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at the Salt Lake City VA and University of Utah Health.

Pumped with drugs and tied to life-saving machines, Baker lingered in intensive care. Doctors allowed him a moment with his family.

“I knew that I probably didn’t have much time,” Baker said.   

At 58, he was as good as dead.

The Gift

That was eight weeks ago.

Before then, the Yuma, Arizona, native had crisscrossed the country; bouncing from VA to VA. Despite a slew of bad news, Baker remained undeterred.  

“I’m going to live through this thing one way or another,’ Baker recalled of those days. “I’m going to keep on living as long as my body does.”

Keith Baker getting ready to go up steps
Army Veteran Keith Baker regains his strength after a rare triple organ transplant of the heart, liver, and kidneys. Baker said he’s never felt as good as he does now. (photo courtesy University of Utah Health).

In October, he got his miracle.

A second liver biopsy showed Baker had a better chance of recovery, allowing him on the transplant waiting list.

Soon, a young man died. He was a match. Doctors rushed Baker to surgery.

The event marked the first time the University of Utah Health attempted such a procedure.

But Baker didn’t need assurances. He had faith.

“I’m a fairly religious person,” Baker said. “I just knew the good lord had a miracle in store for me, which he did.”

For hours, experts labored to replace Baker’s heart and liver. After a short recovery and while he was still unconscious, they replaced his kidney. 

Salt Lake City is one of five national VA heart transplant referral centers, Stehlik said. Granting Baker’s miracle took an army of coordination, he added.

It’s the first time VA funded a triple organ transplant. That’s good news for Baker, given the surgeries would’ve cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Back To New

Baker was recently discharged. Now staying at a VA provided hotel, he’ll continue treatment until April.

His memory’s improved, he’s walking again, and he no longer needs to take naps to stay awake through the day.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I can’t believe how good I feel. I had never felt this good – ever.”

His recovery has impressed his doctors.

“Keith is a person with an incredibly positive attitude and a strong desire to live,” Stehlik said. “Seeing him recover so well … makes us all extremely happy.”

Baker wrote the donor’s family thanking them for the gift of life. He said he wants to help people and donate his body to science.

He said his care at the U was amazing and offered his thanks to VA. 

“The VA are champions,” Baker said. “Without them, I would’ve died.”

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