When the Chaplain Becomes the Patient

By Meredith Whittemore

Robert Binkowski is no stranger to hospitals. As a volunteer chaplain at Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital for more than a decade, he’s spent hours with patients and caregivers.

“I’m here to support everyone: patients, caregivers, staff. We want people to know we’re here for anyone who might be having a rough time,” Binkowski said. “I’m just there to provide some comfort, to listen and to pray with those who may want it.”

While providing spiritual comfort has always been a part of his role, Binkowski said he has an even greater understanding of what it’s like to be on the other end of the bedside after he survived a serious heart attack in February 2018.

Binkowski was working in his backyard when he lost consciousness, not once, but twice.

“I was able to get to my cellphone to call my wife inside the house and have her call 911,” Binkowski said.

A ‘bright white light’ experience on the way to the hospital

Binkowski was rushed to Memorial Hermann Katy, but along the way, his heart stopped twice.

“I had a ‘bright white light’ experience and I believe that’s when the paramedics had to shock me to get my heart pumping again,” Binkowski said.

Once at Memorial Hermann Katy, cardiologist Imran Dar, MD, found two issues with Binkowski’s heart.

“Not only did he have several serious blockages, he was also experiencing what’s called a ‘heart block,’ a condition that occurs when electrical impulses from the top to the bottom of the heart are delayed or interrupted, causing a very slow heartbeat. This resulted in a drop in blood pressure and caused him to pass out. To stabilize his heart rate, I put in a temporary pacemaker before we could address his blockages with bypass surgery,” said Dr. Dar, who is also an assistant professor at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Dr. Dar inserted an intra-aortic balloon pump, a device used to relieve stress on the heart by helping to maintain blood pressure and circulation, until Binkowski was stable enough to be transferred to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC) for additional treatment.

A network of hospitals delivering care seamlessly

“Because Memorial Hermann is a such an extensive health system, patients can get quick, stabilizing treatment in one Memorial Hermann hospital and be transferred seamlessly to another hospital within the same system to receive higher-level care. In Bob’s case, he was able to receive life-saving treatment in Katy and then get transferred to the Texas Medical Center to get a permanent fix,” Dr. Dar said.

Ismael Salas De Armas, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann and assistant professor at McGovern Medical School performed double bypass surgery on Binkowski and also implanted a dual pacemaker. Binkowski says he felt well-cared for both in Katy and at the TMC.

“From the EMS team from HCESD-48, to the nurses at Katy, the nurses at the Texas Medical Center, everyone in the ICU, everyone was wonderful to me. I had several of the chaplains visit me. I really felt ministered to,” Binkowski said.

Making heart-healthy changes in his lifestyle

In the aftermath of his heart attack, Binkowski said he is taking a closer look at his diet.

“I am much more careful about how I eat now, especially when I go out to a restaurant. I really keep an eye on my salt intake,” Binkowski said.

Dr. Dar said it’s never too late to make heart healthy changes.

“Start making small changes today. Work your way up to exercising 30 minutes a day three times a week. Cut back on high-fat, high-sodium and high-sugar foods.  Talk to a physician about getting your high blood pressure in check and lowering your cholesterol,” Dr. Dar said.

Less than a year after his heart attack, Binkowski has returned to volunteering as a chaplain on the weekends at Memorial Hermann Katy, helping comfort others who are struggling to recover from the same health problems he battled against.

“I believe I have a bigger purpose here on earth and I believe being a chaplain and helping people is part of it!” Binkowski said.

Learn more about the signs of a heart attack or schedule an appointment with a cardiologist near you.

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