By Derek Wilson
There’s a long road stretching out ahead for Tony Kriletich, but he’s just happy to have the chance to walk it.
Once an avid marathoner, Kriletich faces a new journey as he recovers from heart transplant surgery, just four months ago. Fittingly, Kriletich has been chronicling his recovery in a series of videos he calls “Tony’s Travels” and shares with his coworkers at Novato Community Hospital.
A radiologist at Novato Community Hospital for 14 years, Kriletich had never once called in sick—until Sept. 21, 2020. He wasn’t feeling well in general and happened to have his annual physical scheduled. During the summer, he had been doing a lot of landscaping at his Novato home, but pushing a wheelbarrow full of dirt was becoming more and more difficult. He still had the strength, but couldn’t seem to catch his breath easily.
“It was frustrating, because the rest of my body was willing to work,” he said.
During an examination his doctor noticed his heartbeat required much more urgent attention and had Kriletich walk across the parking lot of Novato Community Hospital to its emergency department. The EKG was “out of whack,” as Kriletich said, and doctors were unsure of the cause.
He was next transferred to Marin Health, then Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, and finally to California Pacific Medical Center Van Ness Campus in San Francisco, where the investigation led doctors to an answer: Sarcoidosis. The disease causes the body’s organs to become inflamed. When Kriletich’s heart became enlarged, it had trouble controlling a regular rhythm.
The only solution was a heart transplant, a difficult procedure at the best of times, and it was not made any easier by the precautions against COVID-19.
Kriletich was placed at the top of the transplant waiting list because his condition was so dire. Miraculously, just three days afterward, doctors were notified a heart was available for transplant. A day later, On October 9, Kriletich was in the operating room undergoing a transplant.
“When we did the transplant, we looked at his old heart to see what condition led to his heart failing so quickly,” said Dr. Michael Pham, a cardiology specialist at CPMC, who worked with heart surgeon Dr. Brett Sheridan to help Kriletich. “No one knows exactly what causes sarcoidosis. His own immune system goes into overdrive to destroy his own organs. There may be a genetic predisposition, but we don’t know. Typically, there’s no cure for sarcoidosis. It can be controlled with medicine to suppress the immune system. He’ll have to take that medicine for the rest of his life.”
It can often take nearly a month to find a donor heart, but fate was on Kriletich’s side. He spent weeks in a hospital room recovering, unable to receive visitors, but his friends and coworkers sent posters and cards to brighten his spirits. Kriletich at this time was sending regular updates to let them know how he was feeling, although he admits they weren’t very exciting accounts, just news about what he had for breakfast, lunch and dinner while in hospital.
About a month after he was first admitted to CPMC, Kriletich was walking through the hospital hallways and showing signs of new life. Doctors decided he could be discharged on October 23, but Kriletich would have to take it easy and his doctors continue to monitor his condition for signs of tissue rejection.
“Because of COVID, I was limited first in how much I could go out for a walk,” Kriletich said, although he vowed to walk from Novato to his stepdaughter’s home in Marinwood during Valentine’s Day week. “I’m not allowed to work in the yard, due to the germs in the dirt. There are a lot of little things I have to abide by.”
The strength is coming back quickly to Kriletich’s body. He’s already walking up to five miles a day.
“The biggest joy is just being able to walk,” he said.
Kriletich plans to celebrate the one-year anniversary date of his transplant with a walk from Novato, across the Golden Gate Bridge, to CPMC — a 29-mile journey.
“Tony is a model patient,” said Dr. Pham. “Because he’s a health care provider and medical professional, he understands what’s happening and he’s had smooth course after the transplant… The long distance walk he’s planning is a testament to his endurance. He can do anything, it’s just matter of training.”
While he is still recovering, and because of his suppressed immune system, Kriletich can not yet return to work at Novato Community Hospital due to COVID-19 concerns. He is eagerly waiting for the day when he can visit with coworkers and talk with patients.
His coworkers have rallied around Kriletich — literally — driving around his house on one occasion with a celebratory honk of the car horns and cheers that he was finally back home.
“Tony is a special person with a heart of gold and a great employee. His amazing story from diagnosis to recovery has inspired everyone at Sutter’s Novato Community Hospital. I am proud of the teams that delivered extraordinary care to Tony, and I can’t wait to see him back at work giving phenomenal care to others,” said Shannon Thomas, Chief Administrative Officer and Chief Nursing Officer at Novato Community Hospital.