Meet the Norton Children’s surgeon who delivers every heart transplant

Deborah J. Kozik, D.O., talks about her lifesaving work with pediatric heart transplant patients.

Norton Children’s Heart Institute

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It’s a phone call pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Deborah J. Kozik, D.O., has received more than 100 times. One of her patients has been waiting months for a new heart. On this morning, a donor heart in another state has become available. There’s little time to waste. Dr. Kozik and the team are on a plane within hours.

Dr. Kozik, with Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, is one of only a small number of board-certified pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons in the country who are women. She is responsible for more than 150 types of surgeries, including retrieving all the donor hearts for transplant patients at Norton Children’s Hospital.

“It takes two surgeons,” Dr. Kozik said. “[Bahaaldin Alsoufi, M.D.] and I do all of these transplants together.”

Coordinating a transplant

While Dr. Kozik is in the air, Dr. Alsoufi — chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Norton Children’s Heart Institute — is back at Norton Children’s Hospital, preparing the recipient for their new heart. As a donor heart is viable for only a matter of hours, timing has to be perfect. Dr. Alsoufi tells Dr. Kozik when he’s ready for the heart to be removed, so the team can bring it back to Louisville and transplant it into the recipient as soon as possible.

“It’s a delicate dance,” Dr. Kozik said. “The entire team has to be on the same page. It’s everyone working together to provide the best possible outcome.”

Related: Norton Children’s performs 100th heart transplant

Mixed emotions of getting a heart

The average time for a child to be on the heart transplant list is six months, though some wait much longer. While some patients can wait for their new heart at home, others require long hospital stays. Many are hooked up to machines and given medications to keep their bodies functioning until a new heart becomes available.

“It’s always an exciting day when you accept a heart for a patient,” Dr. Kozik said.

But it’s one filled with mixed emotions. When the team goes to retrieve the organ from a donor, Dr. Kozik is the one who stops the heart. It’s a very tough part of her job.

“A family’s just lost a child, and this is a very difficult day for them,” she said. “Before we get started, there’s always a prayer in the room. They all matter. Every single one of them. I hope that our work provides meaning to a terrible loss for the family.

“I try to focus on who’s getting the heart. That’s what gets me through.”

A heart ‘is a gift’

Dr. Kozik estimates she’s retrieved around 130 hearts during her career. As she packs up the heart in a sterile cooler, she ties one of the outer plastic bags in a bow. She does this for every donor heart.

“Gifts have bows,” she said. “And a heart is one of the greatest gifts anyone can receive.”

Once back in Louisville, Drs. Kozik and Alsoufi and the team implant the new heart. Though a long recovery awaits, the patient now has a new opportunity for a long, healthy life.

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Importance of organ donation

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

“Organ donation is essential,” she said. “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. But you also know what they’re doing is a tremendous gift of life and love.”

And for those who have provided that gift to her patients, Dr. Kozik is incredibly grateful.

“You’re giving them a chance at life they might not otherwise have,” she said. “That’s huge because you’ve impacted them for decades to come.”