Nearly three years ago, Ray Hunke’s cardiologist gave him six months to live.
“The doc walked in and said, ‘Ray, I’ve got bad news for you. We can’t do anything for you anymore,’” recalls the Minnesota native, who has advanced heart failure and was living in Texas at the time, in spring 2014. “He said, ‘If we put you on the operating table, you’ll die there. You’ve got six months. But we can make you comfortable.’
“I went home and told Marietta, ‘We gotta sell everything and move back to Minnesota,’” Hunke said. So he and his wife started packing and prepared to spend their remaining days together up north.
As the Hunkes were getting settled in Minnesota, a neighbor urged Ray to call University of Minnesota Health, convinced that its heart failure clinic would not share his previous doctors’ defeatist perspective.
That neighbor was right. Today Hunke lights up when he talks about his cardiologist, Cindy Martin, MD. “Dr. Martin says to me, ‘The heart you have left is doing great.’ And she tells me to walk every day, which I do.
“I just appreciate the way she takes care of me, talks with me, listens to me,” he said. “I would tell anyone, if you’ve got serious heart problems, the U is the only place to go. They care.”
Hunke had a heart attack and bypass surgery in 1989 and got his first pacemaker/defibrillator in 2001. His health began to seriously decline in 2012, and by 2014 his doctors in Texas had essentially “given up” on him.
Fortunately, he found himself in good hands at University of Minnesota Health. The University has been a pioneer in heart failure research and treatment over the past seven decades, including through its work more recently on the left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which helps an ailing heart pump blood to the rest of the body. That was one option Hunke’s cardiac care team discussed with him.
But following a routine probe of his stent grafts, Hunke began to feel markedly better, and the LVAD option was shelved for the time being.
Then Hunke’s team gradually weaned him off of palliative inotrope, a medication he’d been taking since before he moved back north.
“We see a lot of these patients come in who are older, they’ve had their heart disease for many years, and oral medication therapy doesn’t seem to be maintaining a good quality of life anymore. They’re declining and they’re just kind of told there’s nothing else,” Martin said.
“Sometimes they’re referred for advanced therapy [like transplantation or the LVAD]; sometimes we’re able to find areas to adjust or improve within their [existing] medical regimen. Ray would be an example of this.”
Hunke’s gratitude to his University of Minnesota Health team—not only to his physicians, but nurse practitioners, nurses, and others—inspired him to donate to the Lillehei Heart Institute in each of the past two years.
Martin, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Medicine, is a Lillehei Endowed Scholar and has received research funding through the Lillehei Heart Institute. She said the support of the Hunkes and others is critical for physician-scientists who hope to translate basic science discoveries into lifesaving therapies for patients.
“I’ve been a developmental biologist basically my whole research career. Now I want to apply that kind of knowledge to clinical arenas,” Martin explains. “That’s what a physician-scientist does.”
Since summer 2014, Hunke, a recovering alcoholic of 40 years, has felt good enough to volunteer every Sunday night in the inpatient detoxification program at Fairview Recovery Services in Minneapolis. It’s good for his heart, he said.
So is the relationship he has developed with Martin. “We’re a team,” Martin said.