We’re celebrating 50 years of healing hearts

The heart program at Gundersen Health System began 50 years ago, and we’re celebrating that milestone by sharing some of our stories. We hope you’ll join us.

Perhaps you’ve had open heart or minimally invasive bypass surgery, or a pacemaker–perhaps we’ve cared for someone you love–it’s been our privilege to provide your care. It’s also our privilege to hear from you.

We invite you to share your story here and we thank you for visiting.

If you’d like to learn more about the Gundersen Heart and Vascular Institute, click here.

Recovery so quick, he scarcely missed a beat

On Jan. 4, 2012, 56-year-old Tom Kneifl had triple heart bypass surgery. Just 47 hours later, he walked out of the hospital, and on Jan. 24—just three weeks after surgery on his heart—Tom was back to his physically demanding job as a cabinetmaker.

How is it that possible after heart bypass surgery that traditionally required six to eight weeks of recovery? It’s because Tom had an innovative surgery, known as minimally invasive coronary artery bypass grafting (MICS CABG) at Gundersen Health System. Gundersen is one of only a few places in the country using this minimally invasive approach.

With three dangerously narrowed coronary arteries, Tom was lucky he didn’t have a heart attack. That’s because Tom and his wife, Sue, heeded the warning signs.

“It was over the Christmas holidays. I was having pain in my chest which I thought, at first, was from too much holiday food and drink. My wife, who works in healthcare, knew I needed to go to the hospital,” Tom recalls.

Tom considers himself to be in good shape and he sees his doctor every year. Although he had slightly elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, he had improved both through diet and exercise. But Tom had a strike against him—a strong family history of heart disease. His mother and brother both passed away from heart disease in their early to mid-50s.

At the hospital, Tom was told he needed heart surgery. Like most people, he was familiar with traditional open heart surgery in which the surgeon uses a long incision to opens up the chest. So Tom was surprised to learn about the minimally invasive procedure from Gundersen heart surgeon Prem Rabindra, MD. This approach requires only a small three-inch incision between the ribs and two smaller one-inch incisions to accommodate the surgeon’s instruments. The result is less pain and blood loss, lower risk of infection, a shorter hospital stay, faster recovery, little scarring and restriction lifted much sooner. Tom’s quick recovery and returned to work is evidence of that.

“I hate sitting around the house so I was glad to go back to work so quickly,” says Tom. “My boss couldn’t believe it. Work was very busy, so he was happy to have me back.”

“We are seeing this more frequently,” Dr. Rabindra adds. “Most of our patients who work can usually go back within a month.”

Dr. Rabindra is the first surgeon in this area to perform minimally invasive heart bypass and has successfully performed the procedure on more than 100 patients, including those, like Tom, who need bypass on three or four vessels. Few surgeons in the country do this.

“Nearly one third of the cases we do are triple bypasses and about 10 percent are quadruple. Sometimes with a triple or quadruple bypass, we may use the heart-lung machine to support the patient in a pump-assisted beating heart approach. This gives us more leeway to manipulate the heart to get to all areas that need to be bypassed,” reports Dr. Rabinda. “But with Tom, we had no specific challenges.”

If you have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors including smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, high cholesterol or blood pressure, talk with your doctor or take our online health risk assessment at gundersenhealth.org/knowyourrisk.

Valentine’s Day approaches with healing hearts for couple

Story by Mike Tighe, photo by Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune, February 6, 2014

Valentine’s Day will be especially meaningful for Nancy Benjamin next week, because she saved her sweetheart’s life and avoided a broken heart — figuratively and literally.

The 78-year-old La Crosse woman fell victim to broken heart syndrome after administering CPR to her 80-year-old husband, Clyde, when he had a heart attack Dec. 14.

Two clarifications:

  • Yes, broken heart syndrome is a legitimate diagnosis.
  • If you meet the Benjamins, who have four children and 10 grandkids, you’ll see they don’t look their ages by a long shot. But they will celebrate their 59th anniversary in April.

The celebration already has started for Nancy, who found Clyde slumped at his computer.

“It was very stressful — I thought he was dead,” she said. “I blew in his mouth and — nothing, so I called 911 and hollered ‘heart attack’ and started CPR. The 911 man stayed on the line and I had it on speaker phone.

“When 911 got here, I couldn’t stay in the room,” she said. “I was breathing hard.”

Paramedics took over resuscitation duties and transported Clyde to Gundersen Health System, where he had quadruple bypass surgery on Dec. 17.

Clyde doesn’t remember anything until after he awoke in the hospital, where he said Nancy “was sitting there beside me in ICU, holding my hand.”

“She said, ‘I have chest pains,’” he recalled. “You know what happens when you’re in the hospital and say you have chest pains — they take you to emergency.”

“They hustled me to emergency and did blood work,” Nancy said.

Admitted to the hospital for broken heart syndrome, Nancy had a bed in the same room as Clyde’s until she was released two days later.

Although Clyde actually did have a heart attack, the syndrome Nancy fell victim to merely mimics a heart attack, with chest pains and shortness of breath.

The formal name is stress-induced cardiomyopathy, but its title gets even stranger with its tie to octopuses and its Japanese moniker of takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Nancy’s cardiologist at Gundersen, Dr. Stephen Devine, confirmed the diagnosis and the trio of titles for a malady he described as “very unusual — not rare, but infrequent.”

Occurring mainly in postmenopausal women, the condition became known as “broken heart syndrome” in part because it doesn’t include hardening of the arteries typical of many heart attacks, Devine said.

“We see it in any type of stressful situations,” he said. “It can be illness or the stress of the death of a loved one — even gambling losses.”

In Nancy’s case, the exertion of performing CPR and her fear that Clyde was dying combined to, in effect, break her heart, he said.

“They’ve been married so long,” Devine said. “She was very distraught. She did an admirable job doing CPR and calling 911 at the same time. She did everything right.”

The octopus connection dates to the early 1990s, when Japanese doctors gave it the “takotsubo” title because the heart morphs during an attack into a shape that reminded them of the octopus traps denoted name.

“It’s how they trap an octopus,” Devine said. “They put a jar with a narrow mouth and a wide bottom on a rope and drop it into the ocean. The octopus gets in and can’t get back out.”

Similarly, the base of the heart balloons out when a patient is stressed, he said.

Nancy’s prognosis is good, as it is in most cases, because “in general, the heart that balloons out will come back in a short while,” Devine said.

The condition rarely is fatal, and a Mayo Clinic study between 1988 and 2005 found that those under physical stress had a lower survival rate than those under emotional stress.

Clyde, a retired Trane employee and former fighter pilot, said his heart attack was mystifying because he has exercised three times a week for two decades.

“That stumped the doc because I’m not overweight, either,” he said.

When told that his mother died of a heart attack at 46 and his father, at 62, the doctor attributed the attack to family history, Clyde said.

Clyde senses progress in his prescribed rehabilitation regimen, saying, “I’m on machines and I go at my own pace. I get stronger every time.”

Nancy, who is doing exercise rehab just in case, said Valentine’s Day will seem particularly special, adding, “Actually, every day does now. I think about this every day, and I try not to think about him being gone, because that was a possibility.”


If you’re still questioning whether broken heart syndrome is a legitimate ailment, rest assured that the American Heart Association supports the diagnosis on its website.

Here’s a link to the Tribune story–click here.

It was a good day

As told by A. Erik Gundersen, MD

 Everyone has good days and bad days at work. But back when I was a practicing heart surgeon my good days—and bad—had faces and names. I was recently reminded of one of the good days when I had an unexpected visit from a former patient.

Now I have to admit I didn’t remember the face, but I suppose I could be forgiven because when Ramona Dale was my patient, she was just 4 years old. She was my first pediatric heart surgery patient back in 1964 when I joined Gundersen, fresh from residency.

During our recent visit, Ramona said she remembers her family telling her that before I performed surgery on her, I operated on cows. It’s true.

Because the field of heart surgery was still in its infancy at the time, the surgical team needed practical experience before operating on people. The animals received the same concern and care as human patients would, and often the animals went on to live rather full lives. In fact, while operating on one calf, I discovered a heart defect which I repaired. To follow the calf’s progress I asked my uncle, Dr. Sig Gundersen, Sr., if he would keep the animal on his farm. Six months later, he called me to say the calf now weighed 1,600 pounds and was eating him out of house and home.

But most of my heart patients had two legs, not four, like Ramona who was born with an abnormal connection between her aorta and pulmonary artery. Her surgery was to correct this defect. While Ramona was my first pediatric patient as a heart surgeon at Gundersen, I had studied under Robert Gross, MD, a pioneer in pediatric heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital and spent a year receiving advanced training in Newcastle, England. I had also done the procedure as a resident, so I knew I could do it.

That operation, more than 40 years ago, was a success. I was pleased to learn that Ramona is now in her 50s and runs full and half marathons, skis and continues to enjoy good health. I’m retired from surgery, but a few times a year someone will come up to me, remind me that I was their heart surgeon and thank me. It’s a happy reminder of all those good days.


Curt Hickok finds a colorful way to pay it forward

Curt Hickock is grateful for heart care he received at Gundersen Health System.What do you say to a very fit, tough-looking guy who’s a 2nd degree black belt in karate and a top-ranked national sparring competitor…about his pink hair!? According to the guy, 54-year-old Curt Hickok, co-owner of H&H Karate in Onalaska, “I didn’t get razzed too much.”

But what some people said about Curt’s pink hair was, “congratulations,” “thank you” and “you’re amazing.” Curt, along with his son and business partner, Donald, sported pink hair and pink uniforms for a cause. They even traded in their black belts for pink belts. It’s because their karate students met the challenge to raise at least $1,000 for Gundersen Medical Foundation’s Heart fund. In fact they raised $1,220.46 through a fundraising raffle.

His 21-year-old son had the idea for pink hair first, but his students didn’t think this would be much of an embarrassment for a guy his age. As a result, sales of the raffle tickets were lackluster. But then Donald thought—rightly, as it turned out—that the kids would love the idea of an older, rough-and-tumble tough guy like Curt sporting pink hair.

The money they raised went to a cause near and dear to Curt’s heart…literally. In the fall of 2011, Curt had triple heart bypass surgery at Gundersen. He shares the story:

“I would get tired easily, which was unusual for me, so I went to my primary care doctor, Erik A. Gundersen, MD. Because of my symptoms and a family history of heart disease, he sent me for some tests. The tests revealed blockages in my arteries so severe they couldn’t fix the problem with angioplasty and stents. Instead, I was admitted to the hospital that day and the next morning Dr. [Sajjad] Rizvi performed triple bypass surgery.”

Curt had 100% blockage in the main coronary artery (also known as the widow maker) and up to 80% blockage in two others. His doctors credit Curt’s excellent physical condition for miraculously sidestepping a heart attack. It also led to his remarkably fast recovery.

Curt also gives credits to what he describes as a “fantastic rehab team” in Cardiac Rehab at Gundersen.

Curt’s story is also a cautionary tale worth noting. If you have a family history of heart disease, especially a first-degree family member (parent or sibling), talk with your doctor. Depending on your age, medical history and a physical exam, your provider might recommend a screening test that could save your life.

Firefighter feels fortunate

Mike Jorgenson ran the bases with his heart surgery team at a La Crosse Loggers game. Thanks to minimally invasive coronary surgery, Mike was able to get back in the game sooner.

Mike Jorgenson ran the bases with his heart surgery team at a La Crosse Loggers game. Thanks to minimally invasive coronary surgery, Mike was able to get back in the game sooner.

Fifty-four-year-old Mike Jorgenson has been a member of the La Crosse Fire Department for the past 32 years. His family and fellow firefighters know there is very little that will stop him in his tracks.

But on June 6, Mike knew something wasn’t quite right. He hadn’t been sleeping well and experienced difficulty breathing. He initially thought it was a reaction to the food he had eaten the night before. But when his shortness of breath continued to worsen, Mike asked his wife, Pennie, to take him to Gundersen’s Trauma & Emergency Center.

There, doctors performed a chest X-ray and CAT scan. Further testing, including an echocardiogram and heart catheterization, revealed he had three blockages in his heart. At just 54 years of age, this diagnosis, alone, was enough to take Mike’s breath away. Gundersen cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Prem Rabindra, said Mike would need major heart surgery to repair the blockages. That would mean time away from work and many weeks dedicated to cardiac rehabilitation.

Ironically, just a few weeks earlier, Mike heard about Gundersen’s new minimally invasive coronary surgery in which multiple bypasses can be performed through one small incision, with no need to ‘crack the chest.’ He joked with his colleagues saying, “If I ever need heart surgery, that’s the way I’d go!” Not only is there less pain but people can get back to their everyday lives in a fraction of the time.

Little did he know, he’d be in a hospital bed discussing this very issue just a couple weeks later. Though not all patients are candidates for this surgery, Mike was relieved to hear from Dr. Rabindra that he was a good fit.

He spent just four days in the hospital following a successful surgery. Through cardiac rehab at Gundersen and his efforts at home, Mike continues to show progress and grows stronger every day. At one point, Dr. Rabindra had to remind him to slow down—not something you’d expect to hear right after major heart surgery.

“We are fortunate, here in the Coulee Region, to be one of only a handful of places in the country where you can have minimally invasive heart surgery,” says Mike. And he can’t say enough about the Gundersen staff. “Everyone, including Dr. Rabindra and his surgical team, the exercise physiologists, nurses and housekeeping staff, were incredibly polite and sincere. I couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated team.”

Sometimes ‘where caring meets excellence’ isn’t about medicine at all

WeddingSeveral years ago, while I was sitting in a large lecture hall, Dr. Don Berwick [then President of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement] asked the audience members what we wanted from healthcare and that we should discuss it with the people sitting next to us.  After some discussion of high quality, safe, accessible care, he interrupted us and asked again what do we really want from healthcare.  More discussion ensued with most of us just re-iterating our original points, but with more enthusiasm. Well again we were interrupted and Dr. Berwick asked us even more emphatically what do you really, really want from healthcare. Again, more discussion with even more enthusiasm, but at least for me, no new ideas.

He then said what he really, really wanted from healthcare was to be able to continue to skate, and cross-country ski and he wanted treatment that would allow his continued participation in a favored winter sport. His doctors had recommended joint-replacement surgery that would have ended his activity.

Dr. Berwick personalized the issue stating healthcare needs to focus on understanding and addressing the needs of the patient and not just the usual medical dictum.

So today, it happened to me as my medical recommendations were trumped by what the patient really, really wanted. I am lucky to care for a 37-year-old never-smoker who developed an oral tongue cancer. He’s had good surgery, good chemotherapy, and good radiation therapy and his cancer didn’t care.

We have used the best we have to try to give him what he needs from healthcare and his cancer didn’t care. It has spread to other parts of his body, now causing complications resulting in hospitalization. Again, despite more cancer therapy this past two weeks, his cancer has progressed.

The Friday before Labor Day will be a day that many of us who have helped care for this 37-year-old man will never forget. He reported hemoptysis which prompted us to order a CT scan of the chest showing recurrent cancer in the left lung. Per usual Gundersen service the scan was done that day and he was seen by pulmonary medicine. Bronchoscopy happened early the next week confirming that indeed the patient’s cancer had returned.

The person who has been with him, supporting him throughout this year-and-a-half medical odyssey, informed us that they were planning to get married in November and wondered if this should be moved to a more near date. Well it has happened.

This morning while I was reviewing our new cancer treatment plan, or what I thought he wanted from healthcare, the patient’s fiancé informed me that what he really, really wanted was to get married today. While that sounds like an easy task, it really, really wasn’t. Walking back from the CCU, the head and neck nurse navigator, Bette Roob, and I thought that somehow we needed to try to make this impromptu wedding happen. Easier said than done. I stopped off at the third floor and wandered into administration. Because the request was so out of the ordinary, I was reluctant to even asked for help. Asking wasn’t necessary as Bryan Erdman, VP, approached me–and like that the train left the station.

So how hard can it be to get married in a hospital?  Well, it’s not so easy when your marriage license is from another state–Minnesota. Dan Lilly  (one of our Gundersen attorneys) figured out that an emergency marriage license could be obtained if the physician provided appropriate documentation. Dr. Mulrennan provided this piece of the puzzle, stating the patient’s condition met criteria for an emergency marriage license. Pastoral Care got involved and Paul Haugen officiated the ceremony. Flowers appeared, as did a cake. Music was played and sung. Photos were taken. The ceremony was recorded. A hospital room was decorated fit to look like a wedding suite. A wedding dinner was arranged. Most importantly, a marriage happened.

I wish I knew all of the people who helped make this happen today. I can’t even guess the number. A hundred staff. Who knows, maybe more. What departments; administration, legal, nursing from the CCU and 4 Center, Service Excellence, Pastoral Care, Dietary, the General Medicine team, Medical Media, and probably many more.

The patient didn’t start his new cancer treatment plan today. That had to wait. As what he really, really wanted from healthcare today was to be married. So you should know that’s what so many of Gundersen’s amazing staff did today.

Pat Conway, MD

Here’s a link to a story about the wedding that ran on WKBT on November 15, 2013.

Jeff’s Tree

A little shy of two years ago now, my eldest son, Jeff, passed away. Jeff was…well a nice word would be eclectic, made of many different parts, philosophies, not one to be pegged as anything in particular, but fun, smart, witty, an all-around great son. When he passed, I was kind of stuck dealing with my sorrow. I had seen other memorials around the La Crosse campus, and entertained those thoughts. With Jeff being Pagan and following his gods of the earth, he had a large tattoo of the Tree of Life on his back, and I could see no more fitting of a memorial to Jeff than to have a tree planted in his name. I asked around and came in to contact with the Campus Renewal Project. They had just started talking about setting up a program for memorials, and Kari Christenson, the Project Manager met with me. She listened to my story, listened through my tears, and told me of their project and how it would be a perfect fit. I couldn’t have agreed more. I was one of the first people to become involved with the project, so she sat down with me and the blueprints, and we figured out where we could have “Jeff’s Tree”. Thankfully, around this time, the new Inpatient Psych building was nearing completion. Jeff had recently graduated from Viterbo with a Psych degree, so near the new Psych building was perfect. When the building was getting nearer to completion, we found that the tree and location that I had originally picked was not going to work. Kari, undaunted, called me and suggested we take a walk around and find that perfect tree. We located one, a “London Plane Tree” (yeah, I never heard of it either) and that was to be Jeff’s tree. Kari had also come up with these beautiful plaques attached to stones to mark these memorials. Kari could not have been any more caring, any more empathetic and concerned as she had shown me. She truly was “where caring meets excellence”. Now as a post script to this story – my family is Dutch, my parents were immigrants. Jeff was truly enthralled with his heritage. I even had the luxury of taking my family there years ago, and Jeff loved every minute of it, finding out where he “was from”. I had promised to take him back some day, but, never got my chance. I did get to go back myself this summer, and took Jeff along “in spirit”. As I was walking around in Holland, looking at the trees, they bore a strange familiarity. Sure enough, they were of the same family as the London Plane Tree. Another connection that I would have to my Jeff. Where 7th Street meets South Avenue, where caring meets excellence… Thank you Kari. – James Van Oursouw, Applications Specialist, Radiology

Loving Care

Last week’s issue of Bridges, Gundersen’s employee newsletter, was my inspiration for today’s topic. The front page article informed us that the new hospital would be called the Legacy Building.


For me, legacy is a powerful word with an equally powerful meaning behind it. I think the people who decided on this name made a perfect choice.

Looking at the word and building in a couple different ways:

You could see it as something handed down to the community, employees, and patients from the original Dr. Adolf Gundersen. It’s quite obvious his legacy has been continuing since day one and has helped countless lives.

The Legacy Building could also symbolize a lifetime of truths and values of the Gundersen Health System that continue to mature over the years in our mission, vision, and values, as well as our service standards.

For us the Legacy Building can inspire our own personal legacies. Those legacies could be with families, communities, or both. We may find ourselves asking what kind of person we want to be remembered as and what contributions to society we want to make. A personal legacy reflects your core values, standards of excellence and your deep-rooted beliefs.

The Legacy Building and our own legacies may be more clearly defined by the obstacles which were overcome and the principles which were held.

With that said, I feel the Legacy Building is not only a result of Dr. Gundersen’s compassion, but EVERY employee who’s worked here along the way. So, as we soul search our own personal legacies, I think we should be lucky to know that we’re already a part of a legacy;  which is the care we provide to the patients and families that come through this hospital.  The same goes for the work we accomplish and the voices we have with this Health System.

Thank you.

Franz Schuttenhelm, Respiratory Therapy

Outstanding, compassionate care…on an individual basis

I have been a nurse with Gundersen for 35 years and would like to share my most recent story of my husband’s cataract surgeries. I was extremely impressed by the coordination between the Viroqua Eye Clinic and the staff from Gundersen Eye Clinic in La Crosse, and the Ambulatory Surgery Center. He received excellent care and compassion throughout the entire process, from every staff member involved in his care. The patient teaching was excellent, for my husband and for myself. When calling to ask questions the responses were very quick and answered in a professional, kind manner. It was very evident as I observed the entire process (the QI person in me), this group has developed a streamlined process, providing professional, and outstanding, compassionate care to patients on an individual basis. – Mary Lewison-Eitland, RN, Viroqua Center for Orthopaedics