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January 15, 2019/Features & Updates

Dad Meets Heart Donor’s Family For First Time After 113 Days In Hospital

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Three days after Christmas, Ken Vogelsong received one extra gift – an emotional embrace with Lisa Bragg, the mother of his heart donor, Markus Abbott.

“Markus is my hero,” said Ken, 45, who met Lisa for the first time, at the Scott Emergency Communications Center in Davenport, Iowa. It was there, on January 19, 2018, that Lisa’s son, 27-year-old Markus Abbott, passed away. A day later, following a 12-hour heart transplant operation at Cleveland Clinic, Ken’s new life began.

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Ken Vogelsong hugs Lisa Bragg for the first time in Davenport, IA. (Courtesy: John Schultz/Quad-City Times/ZUMA Press)

“I look forward to putting my arms around Lisa and telling her how sorry I am for her loss,” said Ken, in an interview from his home near Defiance, Ohio, a few days before the meeting. “And to say thank you for saving my life.”

Diagnosed in 2010 with non-ischemic dilated cardiomyopathy, the same heart muscle disease that took the life of his teenage brother more than 25 years ago, Ken knew at some point the condition would worsen and he would one day require a heart transplant. Indeed, his condition began to steadily decline in October 2017, necessitating a series of surgical procedures and mechanical devices to keep him alive and strong enough to accept a new heart.

“Ken needed a new heart, but the question was: Would we be able to get him safely ready for a transplant,” said Maria Mountis, D.O., Ken’s cardiologist and an expert in advanced heart failure and transplant at Cleveland Clinic. “It required a real tour de force from the entire medical team, each day, to keep him going.”

RELATED: Businessman Celebrates New Heart with the Cardiologists Who Helped Save His Life

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Ken Vogelsong hugs Lisa Bragg for the first time in Davenport, IA. (Courtesy: John Schultz/Quad-City Times/ZUMA Press)

Ken spent 113 days in Cleveland Clinic’s intensive care unit (ICU), growing weaker and struggling – with the aid of three or four nurses and physical therapists – to get out of bed each day, a necessary step to keep his body strong enough for transplant surgery. When he became depressed or exhausted, Ken would look at pictures of his daughters Nevada, now 12, and Liberty, age 9. His wife, Jamie, placed them near the foot of his bed.

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Ken Vogelsong hugs Lisa Bragg for the first time in Davenport, IA. (Courtesy: John Schultz/Quad-City Times/ZUMA Press)

“I needed to be there for them, and I wanted to be there for them,” Ken said. “I would stare at their pictures and pray to get myself home for them.”

When the call came that a suitable heart was at last available, it began one of the best days in Ken’s life – and the worst day in Lisa’s. The sudden death of Markus was a devastating blow, only tempered by the fact that – just a few months earlier – he had chosen to become an organ donor when renewing his driver’s license.

RELATED: Register to become an organ donor with Lifebanc

Ken Vogelsong hugs Lisa Bragg for the first time in Davenport, IA. (Courtesy: John Schultz/Quad-City Times/ZUMA Press)

“Markus was a very free-spirited person who got along with everybody,” said Lisa, who noted that five people have benefited from her son’s organs. “Even though I lost him, knowing he has made such an impact on the lives of Ken and his family, well, it means a lot to me.”

Ken’s heart transplant surgeon, Michael Zhen-Yu Tong, M.D., who is director of Cardiac Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support, said the operation took about twice as long as the average heart transplant because Ken’s chest had so much scarring from previous surgical procedures. The operation was also the first time Cleveland Clinic used a heart from a donor with hepatitis C, which was passed on to Ken but treated – and cured – by medication.

RELATED: Transplant Recipient Celebrates 30 Years with Same Heart

“After the transplant, Ken has done really well, and one of the reasons is the effort the team went through to make sure he was physically as fit as he could be for the operation,” Dr. Tong said. “Spending so many months in ICU can be mentally draining for patients and their families. To see Ken come through this and thrive is so motivating for the entire team.”

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Ken Vogelsong hugs Lisa Bragg for the first time in Davenport, IA. (Courtesy: John Schultz/Quad-City Times/ZUMA Press)

Ken noted that his physical condition is excellent, and he even rode roller coasters with his girls at a theme park in St. Louis this summer. He plans to return to work in 2019.

Shortly after his surgery, Ken wrote a letter to the family of his donor, to express his sorrow for their loss and gratitude for saving his life. Touched by the letter, Lisa responded – beginning a series of phone conversations that culminated in the December 28 meeting with Ken and his family.

Ken Vogelsong hugs Lisa Bragg for the first time in Davenport, IA. (Courtesy: John Schultz/Quad-City Times/ZUMA Press)

RELATED: After 104-Day Hospitalization, Heart Transplant Recipient Celebrates 21st Birthday

“We’ve talked so much that Ken has become a member of my family,” Lisa observed. “For me to physically meet him, and listen to my son’s heart, was a wonderful experience.”

Register to become an organ donor with Lifebanc and you could save up to 8 lives.

About Cleveland Clinic

Cleveland Clinic is a nonprofit multispecialty academic medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education. Located in Cleveland, Ohio, it was founded in 1921 by four renowned physicians with a vision of providing outstanding patient care based upon the principles of cooperation, compassion and innovation. Cleveland Clinic has pioneered many medical breakthroughs, including coronary artery bypass surgery and the first face transplant in the United States. Cleveland Clinic is consistently recognized in the U.S. and throughout the world for its expertise and care. Among Cleveland Clinic’s 81,000 employees worldwide are more than 5,743 salaried physicians and researchers, and 20,160 registered nurses and advanced practice providers, representing 140 medical specialties and subspecialties. Cleveland Clinic is a 6,690-bed health system that includes a 173-acre main campus near downtown Cleveland, 23 hospitals, 276 outpatient facilities, including locations in northeast Ohio; Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Toronto, Canada; Abu Dhabi, UAE; and London, England. In 2023, there were 13.7 million outpatient encounters, 323,000 hospital admissions and observations, and 301,000 surgeries and procedures throughout Cleveland Clinic’s health system. Patients came for treatment from every state and 132 countries. Visit us at clevelandclinic.org. Follow us at twitter.com/CleClinicNews. News and resources available at newsroom.clevelandclinic.org.

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