Frank ‘Alligator’ Robb undergoes complex heart surgery, plans to be back in the swamp soon

Medical Watch

From the swamps of Florida to a lagoon in Chicago, Frank Robb has devoted his life to capturing and studying some of the most powerful creatures in the animal kingdom. But in the last year, the physical demands of the job he loves proved too much for his weakened body. 

Alligators are what Robb knows best. He makes his living capturing the creatures when they wander from the wild to more domesticated settings.

Chicago first met hime in 2019 when he was called in to help the city take care of a little problem peeking out of Humboldt Park lagoon.

Robb brought Chance the Snapper to safety and helped arrange for the alligator’s move to a more suitable habitat in Florida.

WGN’s Medical Watch team visited Robb and Chance in February 2020 and learned about Robb’s lifelong conservation and research efforts. What we didn’t know then is the 41-year-old wrangles with one-third the lung capacity of a typical adult his height.

Dr George Arnaoutakis is a cardiovascular surgeon at University of Florida Health.

“I’ve been amazed more than once at how some people can continue to function at the level they do,” he said. “And it’s testament to the amazing human body and also the will and determination of individuals like Frank.” 

It’s how Robb was born, his sternum sunken in. As a 4-year-old, he underwent reconstructive surgery to elevate his chest and help him breathe better. 

“They took my sternum and flipped it and broke my ribs and reformed my chest,” Robb said.

“Because of the chest wall deformity, his lungs did not grow and develop to the normal adult size,” Arnaoutakis said.

Still, Robb carried on with his work in the wild, not even aware of his physical limitations.

“The job I have, you have to be able to go from 0 to 150 percent and then drop that back off for 30 minutes or an hour, and jump right back into it again,” Robb said. “And maybe do that for 24, 36, 48 hours straight.”

But in late October, on top of diminished lung capacity, a faulty mitral heart valve was causing blood to back up in Robb’s heart, the condition left him struggling to function.

“I couldn’t grab the amount of air I needed to breathe,” he said. “And I knew right then something wasn’t right. And when I was out there it was hard to process thought. I wasn’t running right.”

To fix a mitral valve, doctors often use a mechanical replacement, but that requires lifelong medications that increase a patient’s risk of bleeding. Considering the occupational hazards of Robb’s job, Arnaoutakis wanted to make sure it was fixed.

“So, repair was really a desirable outcome in him,” Arnaoutakis said. “To be able to avoid the limitations of having to be on a blood thinner especially in Franks’ line of work is very important.” 

On March 10, Robb underwent a nearly seven-hour operation at the University of Florida. Arnaoutakis used Gortex material to recreate the cords that open and close the valve tightly. But there were concerns given Robb’s chest wall deformity. 

“We were able to gain access to the heart without having to do any radical chest wall procedures, which would expose him to further risk and fairly minimal benefit,” Arnaoutakis said.

The next several days were rough. Robb suffered with cardiac arrhythmia and was kept in the intensive care unit. His doctors had to restart his heart twice with an electrical shock, a procedure called a cardioversion.

“It’s not uncommon for patients to have transient changes in the electrical rhythm of the heart after open heart surgery,” Arnaoutakis said.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” Robb said.

The WGN Medical Watch team spoke with Robb once he left the ICU more than a week after his surgery.  He had his new battle scar on display. 

“I’m a hurtin’ dude, but it’s going get better,” he said.

“I expect he’ll have a very good prognosis long term and get back out in nature during what he does best,” Arnaoutakis said. 

“(I am) really just so thankful to be here right now,” Robb said. “There were times this week where it didn’t seem like it.”

Robb is now home recovering and says he’s feeling stronger each day. He’s planning to travel to North Carolina and eventually Belize later this year to continue his alligator research. 

To learn more about Frank Robb’s crocodilian research efforts, log on to www.EEARSS.org

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