Big-hearted volunteer’s heart repaired at Fresno Heart & Surgical

Seventy-five-year-old Arthur “Mickey” Kaitangian's first concern upon waking from open heart surgery at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital was whether the fix for his leaky heart valve would require blood thinning medications.

“First thing I asked is can I donate blood again,” he said from his hospital bed after his mid-January surgery. “I’m a frequent blood donor. I figure I’ve given blood 260 times since 1991. And those little babies at Children’s Hospital are counting on it because I’ve got a rare type of blood.”

The retired Fresno City firefighter also wanted to know how soon he could get back to volunteering at his church, for the Salvation Army, for Special Olympics, for Cops for Kids and Firefighters for Christ, for Fill the Helmet to benefit burn patients at Community Regional Medical Center and as support for his former colleagues at the fire department.

Lucky for Kaitangian his cardiac surgeon Peter Birnbaum is especially skilled in mitral valve repair, having done his medical fellowship under the French surgeon who perfected the procedure. Dr. Birnbaum said he was specifically recruited to the Valley for that expertise. It came in handy with a patient like Kaitangian who despite his age and doctor’s warning, put off his surgery so he could finish up his volunteering commitments. Dr. Birnbaum was able to avoid replacing the mitral valve. A replacement valve would've required blood thinning medications and ended Kaitangian’s blood donating, said Dr. Birnbaum, who is chairman of the hospital’s surgery department and past president of the hospital's medical staff.

Fresno Heart & Surgical has been named among the “Best in the Region for Cardiac Services” by HealthGrades®, which has also given the hospital 5-star ratings in both cardiac bypass surgery and treatment of heart attacks.

Kaitangian, a Fresno father of two and grandfather of five, was thrilled with the outcome and his care. “This is my hospital,” he said, explaining that Fresno Heart & Surgical is where he chose to have double hernia surgery in 2008 and where his wife had a heart procedure done. “I like it here. I’ve received wonderful care and this is just a fantastic hospital, the food, the care, the room is so comfortable.”

Dr. Birnbaum cleared his patient for blood donation later this spring but did suggest to Kaitangian that he give himself time to recuperate before diving back into his busy schedule.

Kaitangian sheepishly admitted he doesn’t always follow his doctors’ orders to take it easy. “I always want to get up too soon and I don’t ask for help. I knew I had this heart problem, but I delayed surgery so I could do things I had promised.” He added, “I’m used to pushing myself. I’ve got a high tolerance for pain.”

Around Fresno, Kaitangian is known as the senior who passes up others in various races for charity, as the firefighter who never gave up and as an “Energizer Bunny” kind of volunteer.

“He just goes and goes,” said Kaitangian’s old fire captain, Mike Ryan. “I’m the one who sent him to the hospital the day a building collapsed on us. He looked so exhausted at the time, but he didn’t want to go. He never used a day of sick leave.” Ryan joked that after a previous surgery he’d even seen Kaitangian jogging with a walker.

Sandra Yovino, director of burn services at Community Regional, agreed Kaitangian is tireless and said she can’t remember a Fill the Helmet event that Kaitangian missed. “He’s been a wonderful support to the burn program and gives donations to the burn unit.”

Yovino said when a picture of Kaitangian circulated of the fire department’s honor guard visiting him in the hospital after his heart surgery, she sent it to Fresno’s former fire chief Randy Bruegman at his new job in Anaheim. “He immediately called the hospital to talk to Mickey, that’s how important he is to all of us,” Yovino said. “Because of Mickey’s commitment to give back and his beliefs, it draws people to him. He definitely cares about others more than himself. He has nothing but love for his fellow man."

Kaitangian, who sprinkles Bible verses liberally, among his stories about powering through, said for him, it’s about being able to return the blessings he’s enjoyed: “In the gospels it says ‘As I have loved you, love one another’ and ‘Give to others without measure.’ I was blessed, so I’ve got to give what I can as long as I can.”

And Kaitangian said because of his patched up heart he can get back to what’s close to his heart – volunteering to help others.

This story was reported by Erin Kennedy. She can be reached at ekennedy@communitymedical.org.