Winona man 'proud' to pioneer new procedure

By TERRY RINDFLEISCH, La Crosse Tribune | Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hear Merlin tell his story.

Merlin Doblar, 73, drives a hearse for Hoff Funeral Home in Winona, Minn. Doblar was the first patient to undergo a minimally invasive heart procedure in December at Gundersen Health System..
Merlin Doblar didn’t realize he would make medical history at Gundersen Health System until he awoke from heart surgery.

Doblar remembers Dr. Prem Rabindra, a heart surgeon, talking about the new minimally invasive heart surgery, but he didn’t know he would be the first patient at Gundersen to have the operation.

“I made a comment that I had seen the surgery being done the new way on TV, and Dr. Rabindra didn’t know if he would do it that way,” Doblar said. “But when I woke up, it was done the new way.

“I didn’t know I was the first one for a couple days,” he said. “I am proud to have been the first one.”

Rabindra performed the surgery on Dec. 7 through an incision in between the ribs, and his assistants never cracked open Doblar’s chest with a saw. Doblar had double bypass heart surgery and was “off pump” without the heart-lung machine.

Most surgeries at Gundersen today are done without the heart-lung machine.

“It was a total surprise that he didn’t open the chest,” Doblar said.

Instead of a large chest scar, the 73-year-old Winona man was left with a 3-inch scar. A month later, Doblar was back to work in Winona driving a hearse for Hoff Funeral Home.

“I was very happy I didn’t have that chest scar,” Doblar said. “In a couple days I felt real good. I never had pain, hardly.

“I have shown the scar to others, and everybody is amazed,” he said. “They expect to see that scar on your chest.”

Doblar had a quick recovery with 12 cardiac rehabilitation sessions at Winona Health.

“When I walked into rehab, the lady there asked what I was doing there,” he said.

“She thought I looked better walking into rehab than other people when they leave rehab.”

Doblar said Rabindra told him Gundersen might have to change its rehabilitation schedule for the patients with the new heart surgery.
A former truck driver and flour mill worker, Doblar has driven funeral home coaches for eight years, five years with Hoff Funeral Home.

Doblar has been healthy most of his life and hadn’t seen a doctor for many years. But his family suggested that he have a physical examination in November because of his risk for diseases such as colon cancer as he got older.

He saw a Winona physician, who suspected that something was wrong with his heart and ordered an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of his heart. The doctor thought a cardiologist should check out his heart.

Doblar was referred to Gundersen, where a cardiologist eventually found two heart vessel blockages — one 100 percent and another 80 percent blocked.

“They found that somewhere I had a heart attack, and I didn’t even know it,” he said.

He said he thought perhaps angioplasty and a stent would fix the problem, but he was surprised when doctors recommended heart surgery.

“I was healthy as a horse all my life and had no shortness of breath or other symptoms,” Doblar said.

He said he now realizes the new surgery helped with his quick, less painful recovery .

“I was amazed that I didn’t have much pain, and recovering from heart surgery was not really anything big,” Doblar said. “I was back to doing everything I did before, like yard work and driving a funeral home coach in no time.

“I know I am fortunate,” he said. “I don’t take that for granted.”
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