Pediatric cardiac surgeon connects with patients as a mom

Deborah J. Kozik, D.O., pediatric cardiac surgeon, cares for some of the most critically ill children with congenital heart disease.

Deborah J. Kozik, D.O., didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, she describes her family as blue-collar and her mother as someone who influenced her to swing for the fences, to aim high without regard to expected gender roles. She became a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon who specializes in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), critical care and retrieval for heart transplants at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.

“My mom was of the belief I shouldn’t limit myself to stereotypical female roles,” Dr. Kozik said.  “She always encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

The journey toward pediatric cardiothoracic surgery

She studied pre-med in college. After she graduated, she worked for a few years before ultimately pursuing medical school.

“When I started med school, I thought I would do OB/GYN or something along those lines,” Dr. Kozik said. “Surgery in general was pretty much on the bottom of the list. But my very first rotation in medical school was general surgery. I got hooked the very first day.”

She enjoyed caring for patients with complex trauma. She trained in Brooklyn, New York, at Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center, which gave her a tremendous amount of experience treating trauma. She decided to specialize in cardiothoracic surgery. When she did her rotation in pediatric heart surgery at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, she found her calling.

“My husband and I had a 3-year-old son on our hands at the time,” Dr. Kozik said. “He was extremely supportive while I furthered my career while I trained for two more years in congenital heart surgery.”

Dr. Kozik joined the faculty at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and Norton Children’s Heart Institute in 2013 after completing her fellowship in pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.

Playing a critical role for heart transplant patients

Dr. Kozik plays a critical role for patients waiting for a heart transplant. She travels to the hospital where the donor is located and performs the surgery to bring the donor heart back to Norton Children’s. While it’s crucial for treating some of the sickest children, it’s something she tries not to think about too much.

“A year ago, or so, the family of a donor came to the hospital, and wanted to meet the retrieval team, which is me. The first thing the mom said to me when we were introduced was, ‘You’re the last person to hold my son’s heart.’ That was incredibly hard,” Dr. Kozik said. “One of the things that we always do before starting the retrieval surgery is to say a prayer. A lot of times, the family of the donor has written something that they’d like us to know about their child, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.

“Then I try to focus on the patient who is going to get better because of this heart. That’s what gets me through.”

Dr. Kozik stresses the importance of organ donation, while acknowledging the complex feelings it can cause.

“Organ donation is fantastic; I’m an organ donor, my entire family are organ donors. It’s just hard to go sometimes and see the person who you’re taking the organs from because you know what the family is going through, and how hard it is for them,” she said. “But you also know what they’re doing is a tremendous gift of life and love.”

Helping patients as a mother and a cardiothoracic surgeon

Dr. Kozik enjoys caring for the most critically ill patients because of the impact that the Norton Children’s Heart Institute is able to have on helping these children survive and thrive.

“I think that every kid you can treat and who goes home from Norton Children’s, you made a difference in their lives and in their family’s lives, and I think for all of us, that is huge,” she said. “That’s why we all do this; these are kids who, the overwhelming majority of them, if you don’t

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fix their heart, will die. Being able to have that kind of impact and knowing that we were able to fix their heart and change their life forever, it’s very rewarding.”

Being able to connect to families as a mother to help bring comfort is something she feels called to do, and a perspective that families appreciate during the hardest times of their lengthy hospital stays.

“Sometimes when the parents are struggling, it can be helpful for them to talk a physician, whether it’s a surgeon, an ICU [intensive care unit] doc, or cardiologist, who is a mother,” she said. “Although I can’t completely understand what they’re going through because I haven’t been through it, I can understand as a mother how difficult it is. Not that men can’t understand, but I think a mother’s perspective can be very different sometimes.”

While the road to recovery may be long for many children with congenital heart conditions, according to Dr. Kozik, the thing families should never discount is the resilience of children.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to never give up hope. Babies and children are so incredibly resilient. These kids are fighters; their families are fighters,” she said. “I’ve found that some of the kids that you think aren’t doing well, surprise you and do quite well. Kids are amazing what they can get through.”