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Former Pirates pitcher Tekulve doing well after heart transplant

| Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, 1:12 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Former Pirates closer Kent Tekulve doffs his cap after being announced during a ceremony honoring the 1979 World Series championship team before a game against the Orioles on May 21, 2014, at PNC Park.

Hospitalized with a failing heart, Pirates analyst and former pitcher Kent Tekulve surrounded himself with stacks of papers and a laptop, and watched every baseball game he could on television.

“I have to get out of here. I have to go announce for the Pirates,” Tekulve told Dr. Raymond Benza, director of Allegheny General Hospital's heart program, this spring.

Tekulve, 67, underwent a heart transplant on Sept. 5 and is expected to recover fully, his doctors said on Tuesday. They discharged the longtime sportscaster, whose colorful commentary follows every Pirates game, from the hospital on Thursday.

“He is in great shape,” Dr. Stephen Bailey, surgical director of the heart transplant program, told reporters.

Tekulve spent most of his 16-year baseball career with the Pirates. His history of heart problems includes a heart attack about 10 years ago and one in December that landed him in Allegheny General's intensive care unit.

“We thought he might not live,” Benza said.

Imaging tests revealed Tekulve's heart was “grossly enlarged” and “significantly damaged” by heart attacks, Benza said.

Tekulve experienced poor kidney and liver function caused by cardiogenic shock.

On Christmas Eve, doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device to pump blood from his heart to the rest of his body. The device assumed 80 percent of his heart function, Bailey said.

Benza called the device “a lifesaving measure” for transplant surgeons.

Soon after Tekulve received the device, doctors began a lengthy transplant evaluation, which included medical tests and meetings with psychiatrists and social workers. In January, doctors placed Tekulve on the waiting list for a heart.

He did not receive special treatment on the wait list for the five-hour operation because of his celebrity, Bailey said. “He went though the normal process.”

Patients with Tekulve's severity of illness wait a median of 87 days, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit that runs the nation's transplant system.

Tekulve told the Tribune-Review on Monday that he expects to return to his job by spring training. He does not plan to make an appearance during a potential playoff run.

He said he found the support offered by Pirates coaches and players and his colleagues at Root Sports overwhelming.

“I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has been so supportive over the past six months, including my family and friends, all of the wonderful people in the Pirates organization and at Root Sports, and all of the outstanding health care professionals at AGH who have taken such great care of me,” Tekulve wrote in a statement.

“Most importantly, however, I would like to extend my eternal gratitude for the gift of life that I received through organ donation.”

Doctors said they will monitor Tekulve during weekly appointments. The first six months after transplant are the most critical to recovery.

Heart transplant patients at Allegheny General have a 92 percent survival rate in the first year after surgery, compared with a national rate of 89 percent, Benza said. Surgeons in the North Side hospital perform about 20 to 25 heart transplants each year.

Tekulve signed as a free agent with the Pirates in 1969 and remained with the team for 11 years. He saved three games in the 1979 World Series, including the winner, in which the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles. He was selected as an All-Star in 1980.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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