According to Robin Tassinari, MD, professor of psychiatry, when someone experiences a highly stressful, life-threatening situation, post-traumatic stress usually keeps them from returning to the scene of the trauma—the site of a car accident, a battle…a hospital. So, when former patient Gregory Kirk chose to return and spend his 20th birthday at Albany Med, once again, he was defying the odds.
The odds were stacked against him when he experienced a sudden, devastating illness back in June. The Auriesville resident and college student woke up in the night
feeling congested (as if his lungs were “full of phlegm”). It’s believed that Greg was suffering from viral myocarditis, a rare infection that attacks the heart, though presence of the virus could never be confirmed. The virus causes inflammation in the heart resulting in poor muscle contraction. In turn, this causes fluid to build up in the lungs.
“It quickly got to the point where he couldn’t breathe. One of the first things was that we had to place him on a ventilator,” says Stuart Miller, MD, Greg’s cardiothoracic surgeon. “His heart and lungs were failing and his other vital organs were shutting down. He was dying.”
In the cardiac catheterization lab, a heart balloon pump was installed to help Greg’s heart contract. Despite this, his condition worsened. Then, Miller and his team placed Greg on an LVAD, a artificial heart most often used to assist patients awaiting a heart transplant but which can also be used in cases like Greg’s where help is needed temporarily. However, his lungs still couldn’t provide enough oxygen requiring initiation of ECMO, artificial lung support as well.
He was brought to the CPS (Cardio Pulmonary Surgery Unit) in extremely critical condition. “Dr. Miller broke the news to us that most people in Greg’s situation
do not make it,” says Greg’s father Bernie. “It wasn’t even day to day. It was minute to minute.” For many days, physicians and nurses worked tirelessly round-the-clock to save Greg. His parents moved into the hospital to be near their son. According to Susan Dillon, RN, nurse manager, CPS, it was a very unusual case.
“Right off the bat he had three of our nurses taking care of him simultaneously. He had three operations right in the ICU, which is unheard of. He was so young,” she recalls.
As Greg beat each odd and got a little better each day, he won the hearts of the staff. “We celebrated each milestone. We had nurses bringing him back souvenirs from summer vacations, switching schedules so they could continue caring for him,” Dillon says.
And, Dillon says even better than the day Greg finally was well enough to leave the hospital was the day in November that he walked back into the unit and posted a new entry on the nursing calendar—the day of his birthday and the party he was having at the hospital.
It was hard to find a dry eye on D2N on that birthday, Wednesday, Dec. 21, when Greg and his parents celebrated with the staff. “I was here for so long, they are like second family,” said Greg, whose heart has recovered and who is making plans to go back to college. When asked what he is grateful for, he said simply…life.