By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Two life-changing events helped mold Dr. Arie Szatkowski, an ebullient, shaggy-haired New Yorker, into a cardiac crusader of the Mid-South.

When he was 23, his father, who was a doctor, died suddenly of a heart attack far too young.

“He was my role model, and I was already applying to medical school,” Szatkowski said. “After he died, I knew I was going to go into cardiology.”

A few years later, in the first week of a fellowship at Columbia, it was time for the young doctors to practice administering echocardiograms, an ultrasound test that maps the heart’s structure and function. He volunteered to be the subject.

“I get on the gurney and the professor starts looking and looking more carefully,” he said. “And he says, ‘Do you know you have atrial septal defect?’”

He didn’t. The doctor was referring to a hole in the wall between the heart’s two upper chambers, a congenital condition often not discovered until it causes serious problems.

“It was a stroke of luck I went into the right field,” he said. “Had I not found it, I would have found out later with a stroke or irreversible arrhythmia or heart failure.”

A cardiac catheterization procedure fixed the defect, allowing Szatkowski to embark on a career with two added benefits: personal insight into a heart patient’s perspective and a passion to make a difference.

“A lot of things I went through are things I take my patients through,” he said. “You can actually empathize with them and express to them you know what they’re going through. You’ve been through it and you can talk about just how it feels.”

But beyond the doctor’s office, there’s a bigger picture. The native New Yorker headed to Memphis in 2003 to join Stern Cardiology Foundation, a 38-doctor group practicing in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

“This is really the ground zero of heart disease in our country,” Szatkowski said. “To try to help one person at a time is great. But to actually impact a community and a region is so much more. I thought if I could come here and start to inspire people just beyond the patient visit and use all the resources that we have here to actually change the course of the disease, that would something be great to do.”

That has meant years of outreach: speaking to church groups, civic organizations and news media, preaching nutrition, exercise and other heart-healthy themes, setting up community health screenings, lobbying politicians to build more parks and promote good health.

“There’s no set plan,” he said. “You just get involved.”

Ron Childers, chief meteorologist at WMC-TV in Memphis, calls Szatkowski the station’s “go-to guy for heart-related issues.”

When Childers recently chaired the city’s Heart Walk, a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, “I told him I want you to be on our executive leadership team. I knew he has no time, but he still agreed to carve some out. He really cares about the health of the community.”

The weatherman also calls Szatkowski his cardiologist.

“There’s something about his presence that’s just so inspiring,” said Childers, who adds that the doctor has helped him improve his diet, lower stress and lose weight. “You just don’t want to disappoint him. He wants you to succeed in being healthy and he just has this way of conveying things that makes you want to do it.”

Szatkowski is equally focused on making his profession better. A few years ago the Stern group dispatched him to its offices across the state line in Mississippi, where he is now director of cardiac services at Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto in Southaven.

“He has helped them so much with accreditation, standards and just a total transformation in their cardiac care,” says Debbie Eddlestone, Stern’s chief executive. “I really don’t know how he gets everything done that he does, but he has great time management skills.”

The hospital recently won several awards in the AHA’s Get With the Guidelines program to improve response to and treatment of heart issues and strokes. Szatkowski is also busy with initiatives to improve quality standards in his physician group and across Baptist Memorial’s 15-hospital system.

“We need to do our part as well as we can, as part of achieving change in the community,” he said.

Childers, a Memphis native, jokes that promoting heart health in a region where “we live off fried chicken, fried catfish and barbecue, and most everything starts with bacon grease” is no simple task.

“In Arie’s exam room he has a map showing the rates of heart disease, and we’re like the reddest area on the map,” he says. “He’s out there battling that, and we’re lucky to have him.”

It’s a challenge, Szatkowski acknowledges, but that also makes it an opportunity.

“This is the leading region for a lot of bad things, like smoking, obesity, diabetes,” he says. “If you can make a difference here, you can have the biggest impact on the death rate in the whole country. It’s a process that takes time, but a lot of people and a lot of organizations here have the same vision, and I think things are getting better.”