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Healthy Balance

A Dangerous Heart Rate & Long Recovery Leads to Enduring Care From a Trusted Specialist

Greg Szafranski smiling

When you have an ongoing medical problem, finding a doctor you trust can mean everything. Having a doctor who knows you, knows your history, and gives you long-term support means less worry. Dealing with illness is hard, but having someone in your corner makes it easier.

That’s the kind of doctor Greg Szafranski found when he met UVA Health heart specialist Andrew E. Darby, MD. Darby helped Greg through a dangerous episode with his heart. Eight years later, Darby continues to support and help Greg with his heart health.

Caught in a ‘VT Storm’

In March 2016, Greg Szafranski knew something was wrong when his implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) shocked him several times. An ICD is a special pacemaker that restores your heart's rhythm using electric shocks when the rhythm gets out of whack (similar to a defibrillator).

“Eight shocks or more, I lost count after 8,” says Greg, smiling. Already no stranger to heart disease, he knew the shocks meant he needed help right away.

He was rushed to the emergency room in Culpeper, Virginia, his home. There, the care team found Greg needed complex care quickly. They airlifted him to UVA Health in Charlottesville.  “It was an interesting ride,” chuckles Greg.

Getting His Dangerous Heart Rate Under Control

That’s when he first became Darby’s patient. “He came in with ventricular tachycardia storm (also called vt storm), which is when patients get a flurry of shocks from their defibrillator,” says Darby. Greg had ventricular tachycardia. His heart was beating dangerously fast and he was in serious trouble.

Darby found Greg also had a heart rhythm problem called atrial fibrillation (afib) that made his heart skip beats. He was facing 2 dangerous problems at the same time.

Your heart rate measures how many beats you have in a certain amount of time. It's measured in beats per minute (bpm). A dangerous heart rate can be either too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia).

A normal range for your heart rate is between 60 and 100 bpm.

Greg’s History of Heart Disease Catches Up

Greg, now 73, got his ICD in 2009 to control his afib, the most common type of heart rhythm problem in the U.S. “A virus infection had weakened his heart," Darby explains.

Greg underwent a heart procedure in 2015 called ablation, but it didn’t do the trick. His heart trouble reared its head again in the next year when he got the vt storm that landed him at UVA Health.

In the emergency room, “there were a team of doctors that came in, and immediately, Dr. Darby seemed very confident,” says Tammy Szafranski, Greg’s wife. “He and the team of doctors talked and he was drawing on a whiteboard.”

They walked Tammy and their 2 adult children through the likeliest cause of Greg’s condition — scar tissue from the viral infection. It disrupted the electrical circuit meant to keep Greg’s heart beating correctly.  

The medical team worked tirelessly to stabilize Greg, even putting him into a medically induced coma and on a ventilator for 5 days.

Greg’s Health Problems Mount

But Greg wasn’t in the clear yet. He suffered a stroke affecting his right side while in the coma.

“It was very obvious when he came out of it that something had happened, and it wasn't right,” remembers Tammy.

All told, Greg spent 22 days recovering at UVA Health, where he was treated for his severe tachycardia, atrial fibrillation, and stroke. Darby and his team got Greg’s heart issues under control, and he started physical therapy.

Getting Greg Back to Normal

When Greg was healthy enough, Darby performed another ablation procedure to fix the issues with his heart's electrical system that caused the dangerous heart rate. An ablation burns a small piece of the heart. That changes the way electricity moves through your heart so it beats correctly.

The procedure this time was a double ablation for Greg's tachycardia and afib. “I treated both the ventricular tachycardia and the atrial fibrillation, and I'd say that's something that we don't do a lot. Either one of those ablations by themselves will take about 3 hours. So doing both together is a pretty big procedure,” says Darby. “A university hospital has access to technology sooner than a lot of hospitals do in the community. So, we're able to do more complex procedures than a lot of other hospitals can.”

This double ablation approach, while challenging, has kept Greg in good long-term health. Since 2016, Greg hasn’t had serious heart rhythm issues. “If patients get beyond a year from the ablation procedure and haven't had any recurrences, the chances are fairly slim that it will come back,” explains Darby.

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Choosing the Right Doctor For His Heart

Greg's family rallied around him in the hospital and beyond, staying by his side through his recovery from his dangerous heart rate. “His wife was at his bedside the whole time. The family was very involved in his care,” recalls Darby. “They're very supportive.”

Tammy decided to ask Darby to take over as Greg’s regular cardiologist. “It was a consensus between the kids and I,” she says.

The day Greg woke up, she approached Darby and asked him if he would take on Greg's case. And he agreed. Since 2016, Greg has made regular trips from Culpeper to Charlottesville to see Darby and his team for his heart care appointments. “My wife made a great choice switching to Dr. Darby,” says Greg. “He’s great. And his team,” smiles Greg.

And they didn’t stop at switching Greg’s heart doctor. “You have a lot of other specialists here that you see,” she reminds Greg. “We come down here for most of our care,” agrees Greg. They’re now seeing eye, skin, and ear, nose, and throat specialists here at UVA Health in Charlottesville, and are looking to switch to a primary care provider here as well.

Today, Greg continues to make his health his number 1 priority. Throughout his journey, Greg has remained positive, focusing on his recovery and staying in touch with Darby and his team at UVA Health.

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