NEW LENOX – On Monday, Robert Strilko of New Lenox is scheduled to undergo open heart surgery to receive a left ventricle assist device, or a LVAD. Robert hopes it will extend his life long enough to get placed on a heart transplant list.
“I have to wait six months after the surgery,” Robert said, “to see if I qualify.”
In that six-month waiting period, the LVAD will help pump Robert’s oversized heart, which only functions at 10 percent of its normal capacity, said Kristy Strilko, Robert’s wife, who has endured two ankle surgeries since Robert became ill in 2012.
“Our landlord decided to move us downstairs to make it easier on us,” Kristy said.
In the meantime, Kristy, a personal banker, is struggling to pay bills and provide a normal family life for their girls, Hannah and Shanna. Robert, a paint technician who is no longer able to work, applied for Social Security disability and is waiting to be approved, Kristy said.
To help meet the expense of Robert’s medical co-pays, prescriptions and transportation between their New Lenox home and the University of Chicago, where Robert will have the surgery, Kristy said family and friends have urged her to seek help, financially and spiritually.
“We definitely need a lot of prayers,” Kristy said. “This is very scary.”
The trouble began in August 2012 when Robert, then 38, developed breathing difficulties. The attending health professional at the quick care center felt Robert had congestive heart failure and sent him to a hospital emergency room.
There, Kristy said, Robert was diagnosed with bronchitis, and prescribed antibiotics and an inhaler. Over the next month, Robert began retaining fluid in his legs, feet, hands and torso, Kristy said.
The couple consulted another doctor who, again, felt Robert had congestive heart failure and directed him back to the hospital, where Robert received a chest X-ray and was diagnosed with pneumonia, Kristy said.
But another family member knowledgeable about congestive heart failure urged Kristy to “not leave the hospital without an ‘echo’ and blood gas test.” The echocardiogram showed an image of Robert’s enlarged heart.
“The doctor came back and said, ‘You’re right. He’s having congestive heart failure,’ ” Kristy said. “That was the first time I heard the term ‘cardiomyopathy.’ ”
Robert has dilated cardiomyopathy, which, according to mayoclinic.com is an enlargement of the heart’s left ventricle. As a result, the heart poorly pumps blood and that led to Robert’s symptoms. The condition can be fatal.
The cardiologist ordered a stress test and an angiogram trying to discern the cause. Because of Roberts “age and weight,” the cardiologist anticipated finding blockages. In fact, Kristy said the cardiologist told her to “pray for blockages,” as that would make Robert’s condition treatable. The test results were not good.
“The doctor said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ ” Kristy said. “His arteries are like a garden hose, nice and clear.’ ”
Because Robert’s heart function never improved above 20 percent, Kristy said, on Dec. 26, 2012, Robert received a pacemaker and defibrillator to control irregular heartbeats. Robert had no further hospitalizations until March 1, 2013, when, while taking his medicine and getting ready to celebrate Hannah’s 10th birthday, he passed out.
“That’s how we found out syncope went along with this,” Kristy said. “That’s when it became real for us. He just declined from there.”
Robert spent so much time in the hospital for fluid retention that he finally received extra diuretics so he could manage it at home. In August 2013, Robert’s pacemaker “went off” for the first time, Kristy said.
“He woke me up,” Kristy said. “It hurt and he was scared. That was another three or four days in the hospital.”
On Sept. 9, Shanna’s golden birthday, Kristy received a phone call that Robert had passed out at work, as Robert was still working part time, she said. His absences became more frequent. Robert said he quit his job in February.
“I’d called off twice in one week,” Robert said. “I said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
Robert fights constant fatigue, memory loss and confusion, Kristy said. He also has a blood clot in his left ventricle. The cardiologist is not worried about the blood clot, Kristy said, as Robert’s heart is not pumping hard enough to dislodge the clot. The plan is to remove it when the LVAD is inserted.
The family copes by leaning on and helping each other, Kristy said. Her work commute is 30 minutes, so that’s when she cries. Once the LVAD is installed, Robert’s color, breathing and brain function should improve, Kristy said.
Robert chuckled at “brain function” and added, “Even though I’m still a man.”
Help through Robert Strilko family by visiting gofundme.com/helpingheartsforrobert or mail donations payable to Robert Strilko Benefit Fund, First Midwest Bank, 3737 W.147th St., Midlothian, IL, 60445.