MINNEAPOLIS -- It was an ordinary angiogram in the cardiac cath lab at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. But there was nothing ordinary about the tall technologist scrubbing in as part of the medical team.
"I've got this certain attachment to the hospital for some reason," joked Goffrey Duevel, 31, as he stood with -- or, more accurately at 6 feet 1, above -- several cardiologists, a nurse and lab technician readying the 79-year-old patient for transfer to a recovery room.
Duevel has been intimately familiar with this hospital for more than 25 years. At 5, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system that should have been the worst health challenge of his life. It wasn't. He endured a form of polio at 8, relearned how to walk and then, at 24, was told he had an enlarged heart, due most likely to the chemicals used to save his life as a boy.
After two open-heart surgeries at UMMC in 2007 to insert heart pumps, Duevel received a new heart in 2008. In the fall of 2009, he began studying at St. Cloud Technical and Community College in St. Cloud, Minn., to become a cardiovascular technologist (CVT), a program that includes a 16-week internship.
So, here he stands.
"Kind of a surreal deal," Duevel says. "A different view, I'll tell you that. And quite therapeutic, to be honest."
Peter Eckman, Duevel's cardiologist, is among many who are humbled by the patient-turned-student. "He's amazing," Eckman said. "To say, 'I've been through this crucible and I want to be part of it.' Some patients say, 'If I never see the inside of a hospital again, it will be too soon.' "
Travis Schaefers, Duevel's mentor and a graduate of the St. Cloud program, says Duevel's familiarity with these procedures affords him a unique kind of empathy. He's also an incredibly hard worker. "He shows up early every morning with a positive attitude," Schaefers said.
Duevel grew up in St. Francis, Minn., with a younger brother, Garrick. New cancer drugs were just coming out in 1984 when he was diagnosed. His parents had to sign a waiver for treatment to begin. He spent kindergarten and first grade at home, with teachers coming over to tutor him at night. He was in and out of UMMC frequently and remembers "a lot of death" -- hospital roommates and other children he met through Camp Courage and Courage Center. He has good memories, too.
"I was definitely the center of attention," said Duevel. "A lot of love was coming my way. A lot of ice cream. My own TV/VCR and telephone, too" -- luxuries he wasn't allowed at home.
In third grade, he was diagnosed with paralysis-causing Guillain-Barre syndrome, which was remedied by aggressive physical therapy. Finally, middle school provided Duevel something he'd never had: normalcy.
"No more rules," he said. "I got to live outside the box. I could build forts, eat dirt if I wanted to or go outside not completely covered in sunscreen and clothes."
Then his father died when he was 16. His mother moved up north with his younger brother. Duevel dropped out of school in his sophomore year and worked in his grandparents' grocery store. He ultimately rediscovered his drive, graduating from an alternative learning center at age 20, eager to learn more.
In 2003, attending a community college in Florida, he started feeling alarmingly winded. He wrote it off to lack of sleep and a diet of hot dogs and Ramen noodles. An echo-cardiogram revealed an enlarged heart. A transplant "was not a matter of if," he said, "but when."
The call came on Jan. 12, 2008. He spent 21 days in the hospital after the transplant, initially feeling "like garbage."
"It took a long time to get up and out of bed," he recalls. But he aggressively began rehab. "I've always been a proactive patient," Duevel said. "I learned at a young age to take it into your own hands. Ask questions, know what's going on. It's paramount to your recovery."
He knew, though, that recovery was not a given. "I'm not a real religious guy," he said. "I made peace with that."
Outcomes for heart-transplant patients are "getting better all the time," said Duevel's cardiologist, Eckman. "People can do virtually everything, especially someone like Goffrey, who is really doing well, taking care of himself and who doesn't have a lot of other medical problems."
In recent years, Duevel paid closer attention during his regular trips to the cath lab. "People who were working on me, I talked to them, asked them what they did." He gave up his original plan to be an accountant. Living in Fridley now, he interns in the lab 50 hours a week, kicking around with friends on the weekends. He'll graduate in May with a CVT degree, which will allow him to work in a cardio cath lab. Maybe this cardio cath lab, although he's not assuming anything.
"I'm thrilled he's training here," said Gladwin Das, a senior cardiologist who stood near Duevel during the morning's procedure.
Duevel remembers one young female patient, teary-eyed as she was being prepped for surgery.
"I've had this stuff done, too," he told her. "Everything's going to be all right."
He looks forward to doing more of that. "I'd like to believe I'm helping my colleagues and people on the table, too," he said. "I've come full circle. This is the best way to say thank-you to all those who have taken care of me."
(Contact Gail Rosenblum at gail.rosenblum(at)startribune.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)