Published on March 28, 2022

Silver Cross Team Helps Orland Hills Couple Avoid a Repeat Heart Attack History

Claudia Benda was waiting in the car one afternoon last May with her dog, Minnie, when she saw her husband, Robert Zihala, pushing the grocery cart from the store. 

Zihala couple
Robert Zihala of Orland Hills feels lucky to be alive and is thankful for his caring doctors and nurses at Silver Cross Hospital who took care of him following a heart attack in May.

“I was thinking he didn’t look too good,” Claudia recalled. “Then, after he unloaded the groceries, he said I had better drive. After a while, he said we had better go to primary care. And before we got home, he said I had better call an ambulance.” 

Robert said he had felt fine earlier in the day. He went to work as a school bus driver, and then he and Claudia and Minnie ran some errands. 

“But in the store, my arms started getting a weird burning sensation running up and down. I started feeling a little dizzy,” he explained. 

By the time the EMTs arrived at their Orland Hills home, it was clear Robert was having a heart attack—a severe one, where they had a difficult time getting his blood flowing through his body. 

Claudia had seen it before. As she rode with her husband in the ambulance to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, she knew it was only a few weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the death of her first husband from a sudden heart attack. 

“My first husband was the picture of health,” she said. “And Robert was overweight, but he hadn’t had any health issues. He was very active, walking Minnie a mile twice a day and clearing snow not only for us, but for a neighbor who couldn’t.” 

An Agonizing Wait

Initially, Claudia said, cardiologist Dr. Hazem Alhawasli was planning to put a stent in to open the blood flow, but when he didn’t come out to talk to her for a few hours, she feared the worst. 

“He told me they couldn’t do the procedure because Robert didn’t have sufficient blood flow. It was very grave.” 

They would have to wait five days until Robert’s blood flow was sufficient to do a triple coronary artery bypass. Following the surgery, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Pat Pappas, who performed the bypass, cautioned her that while the operation went well, they would have to see how Robert’s heart responded in the days following. 

“I just broke down,” Claudia said. “I finally told Dr. Pappas about my late husband so he wouldn’t think I needed medication. He told Dr. Alhawasli and the nursing staff. As kind and caring as they were before, they were extremely comforting in the days following the surgery. They were just so kind and reassuring.” 

Robert continued to get strong enough to be released, but he had to wear a heart safety vest—like a portable defibrillator—for three months. After that, he wore a heart monitor, where they discovered he also had atrial fibrillation, an irregular, often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow. Atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. 

Getting Strong Again

By October, Robert was ready for cardiac rehabilitation at Silver Cross. He showed up at 6 a.m. for an hour a day, three days a week for 12 weeks. 

“I always started out on the treadmill,” explained Robert. “Then it was some other type of bike or machine that worked the arms. After a few weeks, they had me lifting 2-pound weights, then 5-pound weights. 

“Therapy was pretty much one-on-one. It was so personal. They were just great.” 

Robert and Claudia also knew they had to change the way they lived, especially their eating habits. 

“I worked at a hospital in nutrition for 24 years,” Claudia said. “But I never followed the advice.” 

By giving up fast food, fried foods and salt, Robert said he has dropped from 303 pounds on his 5-foot-10-inch frame to 235. Following along, which she says is the best way for a couple to diet, Claudia says she has lost 20 pounds. 

Robert continues medications to help balance blood pressure and his atrial fibrillation and says he feels lucky to be alive and thankful for his caring doctors and nurses at Silver Cross. 

“I really thought I was going to die. They gave me a second chance.” Claudia, too.

“It was really hard being alone after my first husband died. I didn’t want to be alone again. 

“Now, with our new diet and way of life, things are good again. I am so thankful for Silver Cross.” 

For more information about heart care at Silver Cross, visit www.silvercross.org/heart

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Physicians on Silver Cross Hospital’s Medical Staff have expertise in their areas of practice to meet the needs of patients seeking their care. These physicians are independent practitioners on the Medical Staff and are not the agents or employees of Silver Cross Hospital. They treat patients based upon their independent medical judgment and they bill patients separately for their services.