A Change of Heart
Retired insurance executive Jim Slevin will never forget his new doctor's first words to him when they met: "You're done. You've had your last drink or you're dead." And so began Jim's relationship with UM St. Joseph cardiologist, Steven Pollock, MD, a bond that ultimately saved his life.
On July 28, 2014, Rob Stoltz, MD, Jim's internist, called Dr. Pollock as Jim was being transported to UM St. Joseph with chest pain to give him Jim's background. Physicians in the Emergency Department determined he was having a heart attack they could prevent from doing further damage in the short term. But there was a complication: long term abuse of alcohol had caused dangerous varices – swollen blood vessels – in his esophagus, making the cardiac bypass surgery Jim needed too risky with the likely possibility of a fatal rupture.
Jim's only chance would be a positive response to the "tough love" that Dr. Pollock prescribed. Despite earlier failed attempts at interventions and two stays in a rehab facility, something clicked when Dr. Pollock took over Jim's care. "He was so honest with me. He didn't let me hide behind the denial that had been my crutch for years," says Jim. "I couldn't believe he cared so much about saving an alcoholic to the point that he 'quarterbacked' all my care." Dr. Pollock brought in gastroenterologist Neil Goldberg, who was equally blunt. "You've pickled yourself. You have 90 days to get your liver better so the cardiac team can operate," he told Jim.
But it was one of Jim's nurses who had the greatest impact when she asked him if he had ever lost a loved one to cancer. "I was still grieving the recent death of my cousin and best friend, Dennis, who died of ocular melanoma at age 58. My nurse said 'What if he could have cured his cancer by doing one thing – giving up alcohol? Do you think he would have done it? Well, you are being given the chance that Dennis didn't have.' That did it for me. In three months without a drink, my varices had shrunk to the point where Stewart Finney, (chief of cardiac surgery) could safely do a double bypass, replace my aortic valve and essentially save my life."
Nearly three years later, Jim is still overwhelmed by the care he received at UM St. Joseph Medical Center. "Everyone – physicians and nurses – made it crystal clear that they couldn't go it alone. I would have to do the one thing that I had never been able to do. But they made it equally clear that if I gave up drinking forever they would move heaven and earth to save me. And they did. I am so grateful I can give to the Heart Institute to honor the new life they gave to me."