Young at Heart
On New Year’s Eve in 2001, Herb Heili lay on an operating table in a University of Wisconsin-Madison hospital, awaitng a heart transplant. He received a new lease on life thanks to that life-saving operation, and now is determined to make the most of it.
At a time in life when he and many people his age are retired and enjoying things such as golf and grandchildren, Heili, 69, is also hard at work at Viterbo, raising money for a number of planned initiatives in the School of Nursing. On the university’s radar are a new building and a doctorate program in nursing. Projects such as these are expensive, but critically important in maintaining Viterbo’s position as one of the premiere institutions for nursing in the Midwest, and Heili wants to be a part of it.
“Throughout my life, I’ve felt that I have been very fortunate and blessed,” he said. “Having a heart transplant has provided me with additional years of life, and an opportunity to contribute to others in many ways. I want to demonstrate that people who have had a major organ transplant can continue on to be contributors to society, but more importantly, education has always been important to me, and I want to be part of the process to create educational opportunities for future generations.”
Heili is a well-known member of the healthcare community, having worked 42 years in the industry, including more than a decade as Searle Pharmaceutical’s executive director of North American operations, and later he served as executive vice president of Gundersen Lutheran from 1998–2002.
His expertise and contacts in the field of healthcare will be a great asset to Viterbo as it moves forward with its future plans.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have a man of Herb’s talents to help us share Viterbo’s healthcare story and the effect our graduates have on the industry in general,” said Viterbo President Rick Artman. “We have a strong reputation as a leader in healthcare, the sciences, dietetics, and in pre-medicine, and both Herb and his wife Barbara, who is a registered nurse, are deeply committed to the compassionate and personal care that is very much a part of the curriculum emphasized at Viterbo.”
Heili’s journey to Viterbo began with a biology degree from St. Norbert College and a two-year stint as an officer in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps from 1960–62. He then took a job as a sales representative at Lederle Laboratories in Austin, Minn. He spent 23 years with the firm, a division of Cyanamid Company, rising through the ranks to director of training and manpower development. It was this type of work that Heili found the most satisfying.
“Providing opportunities for other people to succeed in life is one of my personal goals,” he said. “I served as a mentor to approximately 55 people in the pharmaceutical industry who advanced to management positions, with two or three even becoming company presidents.”
Seeing the positive results of his work in healthcare and the new drugs created by the pharmaceutical industry has also been a rewarding aspect of his career. Lederle Laboratories was the major supplier of oral polio vaccine that eradicated the disease worldwide. “That really satisfied some of my personal goals in life,” he said.
During his early career, Heili didn’t realize that one day the industry he worked in would help save his life.
Cardiovascular problems were prevalent in his family, and in 1984 he found himself hospitalized for an angioplasty. “I had a major heart attack following the procedure that caused extensive damage to the heart muscle.”
Heili lived with his damaged heart until one day at work in the fall of 2000, he felt light-headed and weak. In an attempt to return to his office, he collapsed and experienced sudden cardiac arrest. It took seven shocks with a defibrillator to save his life. During a later hospital stay, an Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator was implanted in his chest. He also needed a heart transplant, which he would receive on New Year’s Eve 2001.
“I consider myself extremely fortunate because a limited number of patients get to the point at which they actually get a new heart,” he said. “There are approximately 2,700 people on the waiting list for a new heart in the United States. I am so grateful that people are willing to donate organs. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t say a prayer for the young man and his family who donated his heart to me and allowed me the opportunity to survive.”
The operation was a complete success. He now takes 54 pills (which includes anti-rejection drugs) a day, “but that’s a small price to pay to survive,” he said. He even went on to win a gold medal in the high jump at the 2004 Transplant Games.
During his hospital stay, he and his family developed a close relationship with the transplant coordinator for UW-Madison, Heather Jaeger, a 1999 Viterbo graduate. He also became very familiar with other Viterbo nursing graduates through his work in healthcare.
“I’ve been extremely pleased with the quality of nurses the university has produced,” he said. “Viterbo nurses have learned that caring is the foundation and a critical component of nursing practice. The faculty members in the School of Nursing have recognized that caring is both an art and a science, and they instill in their students that it is accomplished with knowledge, wisdom, compassion, and competence.”
Others will also benefit from the planned facility and program improvements in the School of Nursing, Heili said. “Ultimately, consumers of healthcare will be the beneficiaries from the continuous improvement that is essential in today’s environment,” he said.
In addition to his duties at Viterbo, Heili is extremely active in the La Crosse community. He serves on the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation Board and the Riverfront, Inc. board. He is also one of only two patient delegates for the United Network of Organ Sharing, a non-profit, scientific and educational organization that administers the nation’s only organ procurement and transplantation network established by Congress in 1984. He is also a practicing Catholic who attends Mass regularly.
He has been married for 47 years to his wife, Barbara, and they have three very successful children. Seven grandchildren also keep him busy and happy. So does his work at Viterbo.
“What attracted me to Viterbo was the fact that the mission of the university closely matched my own,” he said. “Healthcare and education have always been very important to Barbara and myself. There is a real opportunity to make a difference here at Viterbo. As leaders in healthcare, Viterbo is at a critical crossroads. I have the opportunity to promote the new facility and doctorate program, and that’s exciting. I can hardly wait to share the vision.”