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Physician and father of 12 saved by Strong’s cardiovascular care

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With the help of his family and nurses, Pivarnus walks the hallways at Strong during his recovery.

On June 25, 2018, surrounded by members of his congregation, with his wife and 12 children by his side, 55 year-old Anthony Pivarunas celebrated his newly established “birthday.” This day was especially meaningful for Pivarunas and his family—it didn’t commemorate the day he was born, instead, it marked the day he should have died.

One year earlier, Pivarunas suffered a myocardial infarction, commonly known as a heart attack. After developing increasingly persistent chest pain in his left side, Pivarunas, a Buffalo-area OBGYN, knew immediately something was wrong. After alerting his wife of his condition, they began the drive to Mercy Hospital.

“We live in a more rural area outside of Buffalo, and we have a long driveway,” he recalls. “As we were going down it, I started to get tunnel vision like I was going to pass out, and I had a feeling of doom. I thought I was about to die.”

The drive to the hospital took them right past their church, which, according to Pivarunas, may have ultimately saved his life. Outside of the parish they saw their priest, Fr. Gene, who urged them to call 911. With the help of an ambulance, he made it to the hospital where the cardiologist confirmed what he’d already suspected. A major artery supplying blood to his heart was 100 percent occluded and required two stents. With his heart failing at a rapid pace, his lungs began to fill with fluid and he was going into cariogenic shock. Doctors had to act quickly; he was intubated and temporarily paralyzed to allow his muscles to relax.

In the critical care unit at Mercy, awake but still paralyzed, he learned just what his body had been through. He was placed on a temporary heart pump, as well as an ECMO—a machine that helped oxygenate the blood to give his heart a rest—and received three different medications to elevate his blood pressure to keep blood flowing to his vital organs. Still in critical condition, his options were limited; he would need an artificial external pump, a LVAD, or a heart transplant to stay alive. He was transferred to Strong Memorial Hospital, the only hospital in the region to offer these services.

At Strong, with his breathing tube removed, Pivarunas was confronted with the severity and uncertainty of his condition. “I’d heard enough of what I had gone through to realize that I had a very high chance of dying,” he says. “Now that I was able to talk, I talked with each of children one-on-one. I wanted them to have a message specifically for them, something that might be comforting in case I didn’t live. My wife was last—I told her I loved her and appreciated all she had done for me these past 30 years.”

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Pivarunas (pictured third from the right), recently celebrated his daughter’s wedding with his growing family.

 

The next morning, Dr. Sunil Prasad, chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery at Strong, and his team gave Pivarunas an overview of the state of his heart and their plan for recovery. It was imperative that his heart rest as much as possible with the ECMO, in hopes that any stunned heart muscle would begin to function again. They put in two more stents and removed the external pump. One week after Pivarunas arrived at Strong, his heart had recovered enough to have the ECMO removed.

On July 13, 2017, after 18 days at Strong, Pivarunas was discharged and returned to Buffalo. In addition to being closely monitored at home, he followed up regularly at Strong’s Heart Failure Clinic where the physicians and nurses spent as much time with him as his wife as needed, answering every questions they had, he recalls. Recovery was slow, and his walking progressed one day at a time.

In the months that followed, Pivarnuas celebrated milestones he still remembers with pride—walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding without the assistance of his cane, being alive to meet not one, but three grandchildren, even witnessing his daughter’s labor firsthand. According to him, none of this would have been possible without the lifesaving care he received on that fateful day in June, and in the weeks that followed.

“I have such a profound sense of gratitude to be alive today,” he says. “State-of-the-art medicine and the professional, compassionate, and perfectly coordinated care I received from dozens of people saved my life. I could not have been at a better place for my heart care than Strong.”


—Meghan Goff, July 2019

 

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