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Doctor Aims To Heal Heart, Save Midshipman's Dream

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PHILADELPHIA -

Two military men fighting for our freedom face a different battle.

This is a story of American spirit and high-tech surgery that has Army meeting Navy on an operating table at Temple University Hospital, under the knife of a robot.

They're all working together not only to save a life but a midshipman's dream, FOX 29's Joyce Evans reports.

"You know, I was always that kid who was running around in camouflage," Jim Vika said.

That kid playing soldier laid out the perfect battle plan and went to work. Vika earned a military scholarship. Now, he's just months away from earning a degree in economics from Drexel University.

The ultimate goal for this 22-year-old ROTC midshipman was just one more physical away.

"Yeah, I want to fly for the Navy, so it was just kind of routine," Vika said.

But the result was very different this time.

"He basically tells me I have a hole in my heart, right down the middle," Vika said.

That hole is bigger than a quarter and must be repaired.

"And there's a million things that run through your head, and they're all bad, obviously," he said.

He was freaking out, and with good reason.

"With time, it can cause irreversible heart failure," said Temple's Dr. T. Sloane Guy. "Because of the atrial septal defect, that really would disqualify him for military service."

The decorated Army combat surgeon did all kinds of surgery under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan during three tours of duty.

Guy said it was "in live-fire zones, where we were being rocketed and mortared on a fairly routine basis. … We have had some experiences that most people can't even imagine."

The closest visual reference might be the old hit television show MASH.

"It was very much like MASH. I mean, it looked almost identical to MASH," he said.

But this was without the television background laugh track. It's where he perfected his robotic surgery skills.

"Very high-end, robotic, minimally-invasive surgery requires a surgeon to get out of their comfort zone," he said.

He still suits up in his lucky combat surgical caps. He wears one for every operation.

"I have one from each one of my tours," Guy said. "And this was the hat that I wore for surgery in Iraq."

The first mission for this modern-day Hawkeye, of course, is to save Vika's life. That part, he says, would be easy. But to fix it in a way that might save the 22-year-old's military dream, that's a bigger challenge.

"I was genuinely thinking they were going to split me open," Vika said.

Instead, Guy manned the robot and went inside to repair Vika's heart through a handful of small holes.

"Well, it actually started with a military trauma research project, funded by the military and by NASA," Guy said.

The heart patch was processed from Vika's own tissue, not animal or other materials, which Guy said.

"They put it in glutaraldehyde, which essentially tans it and makes it tougher and more durable over time."

But is it durable enough to pass the Navy's physical standards? They hope it will show nothing more than small scars.

"I think the outlook for him is quite good, and he should be able to return to military service," Guy said.

The doctor put all of that and more about how remarkably well Vika is recovering in a letter to the military board.

"I suspect that it will, he will be OK," the doctor said.

Just like Vika, Guy was in ROTC. The military paid for college at Wake Forest and medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. So, he knows how much Vika could lose, as he and his sweetheart, Devon, nervously await and answer.

"It would be pretty heartbreaking. I'd be really disappointed," he said. "It's something that I've wanted, and now it's finally kind of coming to reality. You know, 12 months from now, hopefully, I'll finally be commissioned and with a ship and doing a real job that I want to do."

Vika is not giving up. He has since returned to active duty with the navy ROTC.. So, his scholarship is good to finish his senior year at Drexel University.

So, what are his chances at making navy after graduation?

Guy actually used to conduct these medical evaluations in the military, and he believes it may be tough for Vika to pass the Navy's strict physical requirements for pilots. But he thinks Vika still has a good shot at becoming a naval officer. He'll have a degree in economics. We'll let you know how it turns out.

 

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