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Transplant patient to highlight need for organ donation at Rose Parade

Kevin Riepl arrived at Cedars-Sinai in October 2010, suffering from sudden heart failure that left him fighting for his life. Surgeons swiftly installed a heart pump and later transplanted a new heart, saving his life and turning him into an unexpected ambassador for organ donation.

Now the 38-year-old Winnetka man is preparing to represent Cedars-Sinai's Comprehensive Transplant Center on the 2013 Donate Life Rose Parade float on Jan. 1. With his wife, twin sons and parents watching from the grandstand, Riepl hopes his presence on the float will send a message about the importance of donating organs.

"It's the best gift anybody can ever give," he said.

Riepl's doctors say they are pleased with his recovery after seven surgeries over 2½ years, and that his new heart is stronger than ever. Riepl, they say, is an inspiration to other transplant patients.

"Kevin's case shows how important organ donation is, especially these days, when there are thousands of people on waiting lists," said Andrew S. Klein, MD, MBA, director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center and the Esther and Mark Schulman Chair in Surgery and Transplantation Medicine.

David Chang, MD, and Kevin Riepl.

Before Riepl became sick, he was leading a happy life – writing music for video games, playing with his twin sons, working out at the gym near his home in the San Fernando Valley. Then in the fall of 2010, he started to feel fatigue, nausea and chest pain. Initially, he attributed the symptoms to a cold, but he continued to feel sicker and sicker. "I knew something wasn't right," he said.

One evening in October 2010, Riepl asked his wife to call 911. He was taken to the emergency room of a nearby community hospital. His organs were shutting down, and he stopped breathing for a short time.

Within hours, Riepl was airlifted to Cedars-Sinai, where he was placed on a heart bypass machine before surgeons installed a temporary heart pump known as a left ventricular assist device. It kept him alive while he awaited a new heart, which became available in July 2011.

The transplant turned out to be just the beginning of Riepl's road back to health. Soon after his transplant, doctors discovered a rare tumor on Riepl's adrenal gland that was affecting his blood pressure. He also has undergone several arm surgeries to repair damage from blood clots.

But today, with his heart condition under control, Riepl has returned to the gym and racquetball. And once again, he can horse around with his twins, now 5½ and in kindergarten.

"I feel great," he said, crediting his turnaround to the medical care he received at Cedars-Sinai. "Everyone was exceptional. I believe I received the best of best care a hospital could provide."

Riepl's doctors say they are delighted with his progress and moved by his unabashed spirit.

"I look forward to coming to work to see people like Kevin with passion for life," said Jon Kobashigawa, MD, (pictured with Riepl at left) director of Advanced Heart Disease, director of the Heart Transplant Program and associate director for Clinical Affairs at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.

"That is rewarding in itself," added Kobashigawa, who holds the DSL/Thomas D. Gordon Chair in Heart Transplantation Medicine.

Cedars-Sinai surgeons perform more adult heart transplants than those at any other U.S. medical center. In 2011, surgeons performed heart transplants on 87 patients, and heart and lung transplants on two patients, making the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute the leader among the 116 U.S. medical centers that performed adult heart transplants that year. The official statistics were compiled by the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit organization that manages the nation's transplant system.

Tracy Riepl said she is thankful her husband of nine years is a beneficiary of that success. She's thrilled to have him back at her side. The couple is planning a family vacation next summer to their childhood hometown in New Jersey. It will be the culmination of their medical journey, chronicled by Tracy Riepl on a family blog.

"It's like nothing ever happened," said Tracy, noting that her husband's sarcastic wit has returned. "He's the guy I fell in love with."

Pictured at top, from left: Kevin Riepl; Chris Brown, a financial management analyst at the Comprehensive Transplant Center; Mel Runyan, RN; and Jon Kobashigawa, MD.