He had experienced atrial fibrillation on and off since 2008, but something felt different this time. He sat to rest in the screened-in porch of their Williamsburg home. Shortly after, Mrs. Kowalczyk found him gasping for breath and called 911.
Her husband, she later learned, had gone into cardiac arrest. After rescuers arrived, it took them six minutes to restore his heartbeat. He arrived by ambulance at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, where doctors discovered multiple blockages in his arteries. A helicopter arrived to transport him to VCU, the region’s only Trauma 1 hospital, and he went into cardiac arrest again. During this time, a priest administered his last rites.
“I was gone. I shouldn’t be here,” said Kowalczyk.
Doctors were able to revive him, and he was loaded onto the helicopter, where rescuers cooled his body using ARCTIC therapy. He arrived in Richmond and was taken to the Coronary Intensive Care Unit. There, amazingly, he recovered in the days that followed, under the care of a multidisciplinary team led by cardiothoracic surgeon Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D.; ARCTIC Director Mary Ann Peberdy, M.D.; and CICU Director Michael Kontos, M.D. A planned ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) surgery was put on hold, however, when he contracted pneumonia and an infection. Once Kowalczyk was stabilized, doctors let him go home to recover.
He returned to the ICU twice over the next month—the first time for an allergic reaction to penicillin and the second time for continued cardiac problems. During the latter visit in November, his kidneys began to fail. He remained in the hospital for the next six weeks, under the care of the nurses that he calls “my angels” and his loving family.
Mrs. Kowalczyk stayed with him almost every day, and his other family members visited often. They even celebrated the holidays with him, including a memorable Christmas morning, when the Kowalczyks’ five-year-old grandson Nolan opened his presents under a decorated tree in a Richmond hotel lobby.
“The security guard let us do it. There wasn’t anyone at the hotel because it was Christmas,” Mrs. Kowalczyk said. After opening his presents—with Kowalczyk watching on his iPad—Nolan went with his family to visit “Pop-Pop” in his hospital room.
As Kowalczyk grew stronger, and his kidneys returned to normal functioning, his multidisciplinary team decided upon a new course. On January 7, he underwent a MAZE procedure and a coronary artery bypass graft surgery, led by Kasirajan. The surgery went well for Kowalczyk, as did the 12 weeks of rehabilitative care that followed. Since that time, he has not experienced any side effects or Afib. He enjoys walking and riding his bike again, and spending time with his family.
“He went through, unfortunately, the whole gamut at Pauley—but with a very good outcome at the end of it,” said Kasirajan. “It was a long, complex path.”
Kowalczyk has nothing but good things to say about his extended stay in the hospital. “Dr. Kasirajan and his whole crew—they were awesome.”