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‘Bench Strength’ and Teamwork Save Electrician’s Life

Image of Shawn O'Keefe

Shawn O’Keeffe’s body ached: in his joints, in his elbows, in his knees.

The pain and discomfort were new. The electrician in his early 50s never had major medical issues, “it was all I could do was get to work, get home and get to my bed.”

Shawn knew he was not well, but the extent of his declining health came as a shock.

"It was clear when he got here that his life was in imminent danger," says Dr. Keyur Shah, a cardiologist at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center. In pain one evening, his son took him to a local emergency department. His kidneys and liver were in decline. But it was his heart which was so disabled it could not provide blood flow to his organs. In cardiogenic shock, physicians transferred him to VCU Medical Center.

Shawn doesn’t remember the next three weeks. Amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic, he had two surgeries: one of which to implant him with an Impella® heart pump. It’s a tiny and temporary device to restore blood flow.

Every heart is unique. And that’s how we treat them.

Heart specialists at Pauley quickly diagnosed Shawn with fulminant myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that impacts the organ’s ability to pump blood and causes abnormal rhythm (arrhythmias). A multi-disciplinary team including cardiologists, cardiac surgeons and critical care specialists treated O’Keeffe’s condition with an intricate blend of therapies. Once stabilized, his journey was not over. He would ultimately require a heart transplant.

He was placed on the transplant waiting list. After 30 days in the hospital, Shawn got the call, and was rushed into surgery, where a world-class team worked with near superhero precision to transplant his new heart.
"I can’t say enough about them. They are the ones who kept me alive. They are true heroes."

Teamwork for the win.

People “need to come down here and take a lesson from the doctors and nurses at VCU Health, because it was total 100% teamwork from them,” adds Shawn, who was discharged from the hospital after only 64 days of recovery. “The world would be a better place.”

That concept — teamwork — isn’t simply a cliché for the teams at VCU Health’s Pauley Heart Center.  

Shawn’s condition was complex, and VCU Health, backed by the power of an academic medical center and staffed with internationally renowned providers, is equipped to treat the rarest and hardest patient cases. Shah points to the wide range of specialists across a care continuum with expertise and interest in advanced organ disease. It’s this unique approach to treating each patient’s heart that has proven to be one of the hallmarks of each successful outcome. O’Keeffe has regular rehab on his long, but steady road to recovery.

More experts, more opinions.

"Your care is not formed by just one opinion — it’s formulated by several experts with varied backgrounds who bring new ideas to the table," Shah says. "We are not a one-person show, and in order to take care of patients like Shawn, you can’t succeed as a one-person show. Having bench strength allows that."

Shawn's outlook? "He’s doing wonderful," Shah says. "You’d never know by looking at him that he had this journey."