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Power of the Network:
How One Alumnus Saved the Life of a Classmate's Baby Boy
While attending the Evening & Weekend MBA Program, Vera Petkova and Michael Black, both MBA 08, collaborated on a project for their Financial Model Design class. They needed to employ Excel, and Black, a pediatric heart surgeon, apologized for not knowing how to use it.
Petkova, then working as an accounting manager, responded with a playful jab. “Yeah, Michael,” she said, “you only know how to do heart surgery.”
Years later, as she cuddles her 1-year-old son, Christo, in her San Francisco apartment, Petkova remembers how Black would get paged while they were studying and have to head for the hospital. Running her hand over her son’s soft curls, she adds, “I never thought I’d be needing him.”
Petkova enrolled at Haas in 2005, while she was working at Quality Planning Corp., a company that helps auto insurers identify ratings errors and recover lost premiums. “I wanted to grow,” she says. “I knew numbers, but I wanted to expand on that.”
A graduate of San Francisco State University with a degree in international business, Petkova had moved to California from Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1997. Her high school sweetheart, Lubomir Hristov, MBA 14, soon followed and enrolled at Golden Gate University, eventually earning a master’s in software engineering. The two married in 1998.
After graduating from Haas with a concentration in global management, Petkova took a job at consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal. For two years, she spent two-thirds of her time in the Caribbean, where she helped the region’s telecom company with a reorganization.
One day, Petkova was on her way to San Francisco International Airport when she told her husband she felt odd. He hightailed it to a drug store to buy a pregnancy test, and Petkova boarded a plane for Jamaica after learning minutes earlier that she was pregnant.
Petkova was 20 weeks along when she underwent a routine sonogram, looking forward to learning the sex of her baby. But she heard unexpected news: The fetus had a serious heart defect known as transposition of the great arteries. The two main arteries leaving his heart were reversed, changing the way blood circulated through his body. The condition was not a problem as long as he was in utero, but once he was born, it would create a shortage of oxygen in his blood. Without surgery soon after birth, he would not survive.
“We had the typical shocked reaction,” Hristov recalls. “There was the ‘Why me?’ and ‘Did we do anything to cause this?’ Finally, we realized that none of that matters; what we need to focus on is finding the best options.”
They began to think about where they should have the surgery and started looking at the local teaching hospitals—Stanford and UC San Francisco. But soon after learning the diagnosis, Hristov said, Petkova woke up in the middle of the night remembering that her old grad school chum, Michael Black, was a physician who specialized in children’s thoracic surgery.
Black was operating on tiny hearts at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco when he decided to attend business school. “I’m limited in what I can do to help human life,” Black explains. A surgeon can fit in only about 5,000 operations during his or her career, he notes, but an innovative device can save multitudes more.
Black had invented a few devices, including one to save patients from paralysis after an accident. He had patents for his inventions and had started a couple of businesses. But he was frustrated by his inability to market his products. “As a physician, I had authenticity in the medical world, but I didn’t speak business lingo,” he says.
He spent his business school years constantly driving between his home in Palo Alto, his work in San Francisco, and his classes in Berkeley. He didn’t tell anyone at work what he was up to, and initially didn’t own up to his day job at school either. But word soon got out at Haas, and he became the go-to guy for medical questions. “I was the Ann Landers of the school,” he says.
Black graduated valedictorian of his class, specializing in entrepreneurship, and started moving forward with his inventions while still performing surgeries.
When he received a call from Petkova about her unborn son’s heart condition, he says, “It was tough. The last thing I wanted to do was try to keep them from going to another surgeon. What if something went wrong? She had to feel confident I was the right one.”
“If the surgery didn’t go well, I would be a bad memory for her at every Haas event.”
Petkova and Hristov did their research, interviewing other doctors and reviewing the success rates for heart surgery at the local hospitals. Eventually, they decided to go with Black.
“Dr. Black is a specialist and a very good one, and we were assured that he was skilled,” Hristov says, “but the personal friendship really helped. It helped assure us that we were really being taken care of, not just part of the system.”
The expectant parents waited out the pregnancy; until their son arrived, the only thing they could do was to ensure that he be born as big and healthy as possible, which would make surgery easier. Petkova needed to eat well and stay relaxed so she wouldn’t deliver early. It wasn’t easy, she says, but “Michael was very reassuring that the surgery would be successful.”
Petkova did well on her assignment: Christo Hristov was born Aug. 7, 2010, two days before his due date, weighing a healthy 7 pounds, 11 ounces. He was “a bit purplish,” recalls his father—a result of low oxygen in his blood.
The California Pacific neonatal team immediately put him on an IV to keep the connection between the arteries open and help the low-oxygen blood mix with high-oxygen blood.
Four days later, Christo underwent the surgery. While Black detached Christo’s arteries and reattached them to the proper heart chambers, Petkova and Hristov spent a stressful five hours in the hospital, glad to receive regular updates that the surgery was going smoothly. Finally, the procedure was over.
“It’s a beautiful operation, if you can call an operation beautiful,” Black says. “You take a kid who’s maroon in color, and you hand back a baby who’s pink.”
“But with Christo, it was especially rewarding, because I knew Vera,” he adds. “I’m grateful that they chose me.”
Continuing the Haas Tradition
Nearly a year after his surgery, Christo is cruising the furniture around his toy-filled Diamond Heights apartment. A friendly boy with big, brown eyes, he throws a ball, crawls after it, and smiles when a stranger rolls it toward him.
His prognosis is excellent: “He can participate in sports and do everything a normal kid does,” Petkova says.
And now it’s Hristov’s turn to attend Haas: This fall he started the Evening & Weekend MBA Program while working as a quality assurance manager at Symantec. Petkova quit her job at Alvarez & Marsal in June and plans to seek work in finance.
“I’m forever grateful I went to Haas,” she says. “You just don’t know how your connections will help you—at work and elsewhere.”
Left: Dr. Michael Black, MBA 08, performed life-saving heart surgery on Christo after his birth. Parenths Lubo Hristov, MBA 14, and Vara Patkova, MBA 08, watch as Christo, now 1, almost takes his first step.