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Finding Balance After Surviving A Heart Attack

Heart patient David Rutkowski.

For David Rutkowski, giving 100% to every challenge is second nature. When an unexpected heart attack and lifesaving bypass surgery sidelined him from work, he channeled his energy into his most important task yet – finding the balance his healing heart required.

An unexpected journey

Having grown up on the East Coast, David Rutkowski loved spending time near the water. So in February 2016, the Kansas family man welcomed a trip to Miami Beach with his wife, Rosanne. But within a few days of his return home, David began experiencing severe indigestion at night. Rosanne, a critical care nurse, suggested he see a physician.

"I was inclined to do the 'guy' thing and just take more antacids, but she is my best health consultant," David says. "If she thought I needed to look into this, I probably did."

Rosanne remembers the next day as a blur. David felt so sick he couldn't make it through the workday.

By the time the couple reached his doctor's office in Lawrence, his heart rate was 38. The average resting heart rate for adults is 60-100 beats per minute. With no existing blood pressure, weight or cholesterol issues, physicians first attributed the heart rate to a thyroid issue. They also scheduled more tests.

During a heart catheterization procedure the next morning, David got bad news. His left anterior descending artery was 75% blocked. He had experienced a heart attack the day before and would need open-heart surgery at a hospital with more expertise.

"We were in shock," says Rosanne. "My mind was racing thinking about everything that could go wrong."

She is my best health consultant, if she thought I needed to look into this, I probably did. – David Rutkowski

Caring expertise

The couple chose The University of Kansas Health System for David's surgery, based on family recommendations and the hospital's reputation for providing advanced heart care and surgical interventions not available elsewhere.

The decision felt instantly right.

"Everyone there was very reassuring," Rosanne says. "There was a calm confidence from the surgical team, as if the surgery were a well-rehearsed event from a very skilled and organized team."

Cardiothoracic surgeon Gregory Muehlebach, MD, performed quintuple bypass surgery, placing 5 grafts in David's heart to bypass the blockages.

The surgery was a success. David's heart muscle was strong and his outlook for recovery was good. But another challenge lay ahead – cardiac rehabilitation.

Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. After surgery, David thanked a staff member who came in to clean his hospital room. She responded, "Thank you for choosing the hospital and putting your trust in us."

"I was so touched by this," he says. "There was such caring all through the ranks of the hospital. I owe it to that incredible team, my family, myself and God to live every day right and do everything I can to make their hard work a success."

Diverse couple smiling.

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Rebuilding the heart

David works closely with cardiologist Mark Wiley, MD, to ensure he stays on top of his health. Dr. Wiley prescribed 4-6 weeks off from work and urged David to focus his "all-in" mentality on more than just work.

"If patients control their risk factors, they can control the progression of their heart disease and have a higher quality of life with few limitations," Dr. Wiley says. "One of the most critical parts of taking care of yourself is balancing your life so work and stress are not such dominant forces."

David took this message to heart. "I decided I was going to invest my energy into getting healthy," he says.

He started cardiac rehabilitation therapy at his local hospital, completing a 12-week course in 6 weeks. He helped bring together their cardiac rehab trainers and personal trainers at his local gym to redefine the protocol for getting heart patients back into shape. And he works with The University of Kansas Health System's cardiac rehab team to learn tips for healthy eating and living.

His hard work paid off. He has met and even surpassed his goal weight, regained energy and inspired others.

"My CEO recently looked at me and said, 'You're better than what you were,' and that's what this journey is all about," says David.

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