Veteran physician-turned-patient is back to delivering new life after receiving the gift of life himself
November 3, 2022
The sanctity of life never grows old for Norfolk obstetrician-gynecologist Keith Vrbicky, M.D.
The Creighton University School of Medicine graduate has delivered 13,000-plus babies in his four-decade career. Last year he found himself on the receiving end of the gift of life when he underwent a successful heart transplant at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha.
Raised in a devout Czech Catholic family in Clarkson, Dr. Vrbicky, 68, considered the seminary before choosing medicine. He and his wife Karyn, Benedictine oblates with Immaculata Monastery in Norfolk, are parents of six adult children, all living in Omaha. Growing up in Norfolk, the children completed elementary and high school studies at Norfolk Catholic Schools and attended Mass at St. Mary Church.
Keith and Karyn Vrbicky still attend St. Mary, where he sings in the choir. They are members of Sacred Heart Parish – part of the Heart of Jesus Catholic Parish family serving northeast Nebraska.
Last fall, the family’s faith was tested when its patriarch developed sudden onset acute heart failure. He suffered from a rare cardiac disorder called giant cell myocarditis that destroys the heart muscle.
His rapidly deteriorating condition necessitated his placement on the heart transplant wait list only two weeks after his diagnosis.
A match needed to be found within 48 hours or he would die. Nebraska Medicine cardiovascular ICU nurse Kirt Vodicka broke the news to Vrbicky when a match was found. When he asked the doc if he wanted to accept it, he recalled Vrbicky simply saying, “Let’s do it,” before adding. “God bless that donor’s family.”
Close family friend Father Tom Fangman performed the sacrament of the anointing of the sick hours before Vrbicky’s transplant surgery.
“Keith welled up with tears and joined in our prayers. He just has a beautiful faith about him. I’ve always recognized his goodness,” said Father Fangman, who is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn.
The transplant was completed Sept. 25, 2021. Vrbicky believes divine intervention answered prayers asking he receive a second chance at life.
“So many things have to line up for it to be a successful match that we as a family believe it’s a miracle,” Vrbicky said.
“I really feel I witnessed a miracle. I not only witnessed it, I am the miracle,” he said. “There’s other things that tell me this, too. The odds were against us tremendously until by the grace of God this heart became available. God had other plans for me.”
Vrbicky feels called “to pay forward” the gift given him by shedding light on the world-class cardiovascular and transplantation programs at UNMC and bearing witness to the power and primacy of prayer, faith and family. He works with Nebraska’s organ procurement organization, Live On Nebraska, helping raise awareness about the importance of organ and tissue donation.
ROLE REVERSAL, SURRENDER
The role reversal from board certified physician directing health care measures to critical cardiac care patient following orders required surrender. It’s a quality Immaculata Monastery prioress Sister Rosann Ocken sees in abundance in him, learned as a Benedictine oblate.
“Key virtues of a Benedictine life I see in Dr. Vrbicky is his humble service, respect for all persons and obedience to the will of God,” said Sister Rosann, who also admires “the constant witness of his faith.”
In the midst of the suffering he experienced leading up to the transplant, Vrbicky said he found solace in his spirituality. The lesson of the Garden of Gethsemane Scripture passage gave him comfort.
“Jesus knew what was going to happen to him and he actually asked God, ‘please take this away from me’ before saying, ‘thy will be done.’ It kept going through my mind that it was my turn to offer up and sacrifice. It gave me strength.”
He said the name of his late granddaughter Olivia Rose kept going through his mind during the procedure. He also felt a protective, calming presence in the operating room.
“The whole time I sensed somebody holding my hand. Waking up, I remember looking around as if to ask, who is this. I didn’t see anybody but I felt him. I think it was my guardian angel.”
Vrbicky progressed well in his recovery, resuming medical practice four months after the transplant. Regular checkups, blood draws and anti-rejection meds are now routine parts of the rest of his life.
Befitting his faith, family, friends and colleagues celebrated the one-year anniversary of his transplant by attending Mass and a celebratory breakfast together. “A very special time,” he said.
He finds sanctuary attending daily Mass at the monastery chapel.
“His presence is a silent witness of his faith that speaks loudly and clearly,” Sister Rosann noted. “In addition to his prayers with us, Dr. Vrbicky has continually supported us through personal concern for and generous service to our sisters. The sisters are grateful for his friendship.”
The sisters were among those praying for his return to health. Calls, texts, emails, cards and letters flooded his home and office when word spread of his health challenge.
“We appreciated all their well-wishes and prayers,” said Vrbicky. “Until something like this happens you don’t realize how many people you’ve touched.”
A PRAYER ANSWERED
On Sept. 10 of this year, a prayer was answered when he walked his youngest daughter Michaela down the aisle. Just a year earlier, as his health crisis spiraled out of control, there was no guarantee he’d be around for her marriage.
Father Fangman performed the ceremony at St. John Church on the Creighton University campus in Omaha. He’s married all six of the Vrbicky children and baptized their grandkids. “I’ve shared many holy times with them over the years,” he said.
Faith doesn’t fall far in this family tree, Father Fangman added. “I’ve always appreciated the beautiful marriage he and Karyn have. You can see they’re truly partners that walk together and love each other. There’s just much love in that family. I really believe it all comes forth from their faith. I know how important their faith is to them. They live it, they reflect it.”
“Vocation” is how the staunchly pro-life Vrbicky describes his work delivering babies and helping couples conceive. He views it all as an expression of his faith and lifelong desire to be of service.
“What a blessing that I get to witness the light of God in every mother and child I aid in the delivery process,” he said. “The newborn’s bright shining eyes are beacons of hope and promise. Their cries a reminder of how insistent they are to live and to be loved. It’s a tremendous miracle and blessing I get to be a part of.
“I am a very fortunate fellow. It is not everyone that gets to see the face of God on such a regular basis.”
Every day is a reminder of the sacred for Vrbicky.
“I wake up thinking about how grateful I am for the gift I’ve been given, for this new lease on life,” he said. “I feel called to share what we have gone through as a family to help others going through this because it’s going to happen and is happening right now to others.”
Vrbicky expects to release a book in 2023 chronicling the odyssey of his health crisis and survival.