Lucky Number 879
"If you looked at him, you wouldn’t know anything had happened.” —Dr. Andrew Kao
Brian and Lisa Christianson will always be grateful for the number 879.
In October 2020, Brian and Lisa were going through their morning routine, getting their kids ready for school at their home in Northwest Arkansas.
Then, Brian began having chest pains.
“I felt fine,” he said, “and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t.”
The pain was the last thing he remembers. He passed out, and Lisa dialed 911.
He was rushed to the hospital, but because of COVID-19 policies, Lisa was not allowed inside unless it was a life-threatening situation. Lisa went to the parking lot to wait for updates. She received a call to come inside after
"You can imagine all the things going through my head,” Lisa said.
Doctors discovered that Brian had an aortic dissection, a tear in his artery that prevented blood from reaching his heart. Brian had suffered a series of cardiac arrests—he was only alive because of 20 minutes of CPR. He went into
emergency surgery, where surgeons were able to stabilize him. However, his heart had sustained severe damage and was unable to function.
He was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a machine that functions as a patient's heart and lungs. ECMO was keeping Brian alive, but time was critical—it was not a permanent solution. He needed more
advanced care, but from where? Lisa pressed Brian’s doctor to recommend the best care possible.
He answered, “Saint Luke’s.”
Soon, Brian was in an ambulance on his way to Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, where a team quickly determined that his heart would likely not recover.
"Within hours, they sat me down and said, ‘We’re going to prepare for a transplant,’” Lisa said.
In the right place
Despite being overwhelmed with shock and worry, Lisa recognized the expertise and professionalism of the Saint Luke’s team.
"I could tell their job, first and foremost, was to take care of Brian,” she said.
Not only was her husband in good hands—so was she.
"They were working urgently,” Lisa said. "But they also had the patience to answer my questions and guide me along.”
Andrew Kao, MD, medical director of the heart transplant program at the Heart Institute, said Brian would have died without a transplant.
"He was on total support for his heart,” Dr. Kao said. “You can’t be any sicker than that.”
Thankfully, Brian’s overall health was good, which helped his chances considerably.
"It is absolutely essential for us to choose a candidate who will make the best use of a heart,” Dr. Kao said. “A heart transplant is a precious gift; it’s not a machine we can take off the shelf.”
A compatible heart became available only hours after Brian was listed for transplant, and soon after, he became patient number 879 to receive a heart transplant at Saint Luke’s, whose nationally ranked program has been
active for more than 37 years.
"This was as risky a surgery as we can do in heart surgery. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Dr. Kao said. “The teamwork, the knowledge, and the experience—all three of those have to come together for us to deliver.”
From survival to recovery
When Brian regained consciousness, about two weeks after the initial heart attack, he’d lost the ability to do anything—even lacking the strength to lift his phone. He was transferred to Saint Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, the only comprehensive inpatient rehabilitation hospital of its kind in the Kansas City region, where he started to recover.
"I tried to do a lot on my own, which didn’t work very well,” he said. “But the rehab team was always there when I needed them.”
Between their expertise and Brian’s determination, he was home by Thanksgiving. While Brian’s recovery process is ongoing, there are few outward signs of his procedure.
"If you looked at him, you wouldn’t know anything had happened,” Dr. Kao said.
Today, the Christiansons treasure the number 879. Both they and the Saint Luke’s team emphasize the role of donor families, who, despite their own grief, choose to provide the ultimate gift.
"Without a donor family, there is no donation,” Dr. Kao says. “Whoever they are, we need to thank them.”