A Cardiac Care Army

January 30, 2020

The last thing 34-year-old Przemyslaw “Simon” Blazejowicz remembered was falling to his knees in his bathroom one Wednesday evening after eating dinner with his wife and young son.

Five days later, awakening from a haze in the cardiac unit at JFK Medical Center, the South Plainfield, New Jersey, man’s family filled in the astounding details—including how his heart stopped several times and his life was saved by rapid, coordinated care among an “army” of JFK specialists and paramedics, along with other first responders.

The idea that he might suffer a heart attack never occurred to Simon, a truck driver and six-times-a-week gym-goer who hadn’t experienced any significant health problems until he collapsed at home. But the Polish-born immigrant’s parents both had heart disease, with his father dying at age 54 after collapsing in a scenario eerily similar to his son’s.

“I had no chest pain, nothing. It just happened suddenly,” says Simon, who quit smoking three years before. “When I was told what happened, it was hard to believe I was still alive.”

Even as JFK doctors unraveled the mystery that led to the young man’s health crisis—a blood-clotting disorder he likely shared with his father—it never escaped them how dire his situation was.

“His heart stopped. I don’t think you can get any worse than that,” says Saleem Husain, M.D., director of JFK’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab and Chest Pain Unit. “The only reason he survived is because he was treated very early and very aggressively. It takes a team to make things happen.”

Adds Samuel LaCapra, M.D., chairman and medical director of JFK’s Emergency Department and Emergency Medical Services, “This is one of those cases that, even in the best scenario, more often than not doesn’t have a great outcome. It’s a testament to everyone who worked with his care, who all did a phenomenal job and gave him the chance to survive.”

Rapid Response

Hearing a thump and forcing open the bathroom door to find her husband gasping and blue, Simon’s wife, Joanna, immediately called 911. South Plainfield police responded, re-starting his heart using CPR and shocks from an automatic external defibrillator. The JFK EMS team soon joined the efforts by intubating Simon and administering medications and other heart support measures on his way to JFK’s ED.

At the hospital, Dr. Husain was puzzled why someone young and fit like Simon would suffer a heart attack. But his approach was the same regardless of the trigger: immediate treatment in the Cardiac Catheterization Lab. A small catheter was inserted and guided into the blood vessels of Simon’s heart. Angiographic imaging showed a total blockage in the proximal segment of Simon’s left anterior descending (LAD) coronary artery, a major pipeline of blood to the heart.

Dr. Husain restored blood flow to Simon’s heart using angioplasty, a non-surgical procedure that involves the inflation of a small balloon in the blocked area, pressing plaque and clot against the artery wall so that the blood can flow more freely to the heart muscle. He also inserted a drug-coated stent (a small metal mesh-like tube), which presses up against the vessel walls to keep the artery propped wide open. To help support Simon during his initial recovery, Dr. Husain inserted an intra-aortic balloon pump (IABP) to help maintain his blood pressure and give Simon’s heart time to rest.

“Once we got him to the Cath Lab, we had the artery open within 15 minutes,” Dr. Husain explains. “If we hadn’t opened the artery, he probably wouldn’t have made it.”

But Simon’s crisis wasn’t over. That night, his heart stopped twice, prompting another round of resuscitation efforts. The next morning, Simon was back in the Cardiac Cath Lab, where Dr. Husain again needed to reopen his LAD artery. Since cardiac stents don’t typically fail overnight, clinicians at JFK performed more extensive testing. Tests revealed Simon has lupus anticoagulant syndrome, a genetic disorder causing blood to clot more quickly than normal.

“Not knowing this, going back into the Cardiac Cath Lab was our last Hail Mary,” says Simon’s sister Alex Blazejowicz, who also happens to be a cardiac nurse at JFK.

After two weeks in the cardiac unit, Simon spent an additional week at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, where overcoming his lingering weakness was mission critical. “It was hard just to walk,” he recalls, adding that months of outpatient physical therapy after discharge helped him regain his strength until he could head back to his beloved gym.

“Rehab contributed to Simon’s overall recovery, because otherwise there was no way to know if exercise, walking or climbing stairs was safe,” says Iqbal Jafri, M.D., medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center. “Rehab not only strengthens patients but also monitors how they respond to various activities. We were glad that after Simon’s difficult course, he was able to be independent.”

Simple Pleasures

His recovery complete, Simon is back to playing pickup soccer games in local parks with his 10-year-old son, also named Simon. He’ll need to take a prescription blood thinner for the rest of his life and undergo regular monitoring, but he counts himself beyond lucky not only to have survived his ordeal, but thrived.

Last April, Alex threw Simon a surprise 35th birthday party, inviting several JFK nurses who were integral to his care. Two cakes were served: one with a “35” candle and the other with a “1” to mark his new life after his second chance.

“I feel great,” Simon says. “I enjoy the simple things, because you never know when it’s your time.”

Learn how exceptional cardiac care is just a heartbeat away.

Dr. Husain practices in Plainfield. To make an appointment, call 908-222-8970. Dr. LaCapra practices in Edison. To make an appointment, call 732-321-7605. Dr. Jafri practices in Edison. To make an appointment, call 800-822-8905.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.