By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- Robert Wilt II may have been stubborn about his heart condition in the beginning, but thanks to his prescribed LifeVest, he's alive today to talk about it.
Wilt, now 40, of Mount Joy, Pa., went to Winchester Medical Center in March 2011 to meet with electrophysiologist Dr. Ejaz Kahn after feeling some symptoms of a weakening heart.
"Shortness of breath, feeling like my chest was swelled up, stuff like that," Wilt said of how he felt prior to the doctor's visit. "I hadn't had any history with a heart problem before ... my mom had problems with her heart, but there wasn't any other history."
Wilt was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a condition that weakened his heart, but Kahn said he felt that there was a chance that Wilt's heart may be able to repair itself.
"He was definitely a higher risk patient, but because of his age he had time to see some possible improvement," Kahn said.
Normally a LifeVest, a wearable defibrillator that patients wear to monitor their heart around the clock, is worn for three to six months. While patients wait in between check-ups to learn their heart's progress, the LifeVest helps to detect a life-threatening arrhythmia and alert the patient and those around him. The device also delivers a treatment shock if the patient is, for instance, asleep and unable to recognize the alert.
After six months of wearing the device, Wilt's heart still hadn't strengthened to the degree that his doctor wanted, and a discussion over the possible implementation of a permanent defibrillator took place.
However, Wilt wasn't so easily convinced.
"I wanted to prove a point, that I didn't need the permanent device," he said. "But that didn't work."
About 13 months after being prescribed the LifeVest, Wilt was sleeping in his home in Old Fields, W.Va., when an initial alarm went off. It had detected sudden cardiac arrest, but the then 39-year-old wasn't awake to hear it.
The LifeVest can make an alert sound if a patient accidentally moves one of the monitors attached to his skin. The equipment is worn under a patient's clothes, with the actual readable device being worn in a pouch over the shoulder or on a belt.
Wilt said it wasn't rare to make the device go off in his sleep. But when another louder alarm went off and he didn't react, Wilt's girlfriend Kristine Kennedy knew something was wrong.
"He just wasn't responding, and I was shaking him ... he was out for a few minutes," she said.
After the second alarm, the LifeVest delivered a shock to Wilt, which restored his heart rhythm and ultimately saved his life.
"My son called 911, and I was staying there next to Robert until I could talk to someone on the phone," Kennedy said. "The ambulance was there within 10 or 15 minutes, which is quick, but if he hadn't been wearing the LifeVest it would've been a different story."
By the time paramedics arrived, Wilt was able to speak with them. Kennedy said in the moment, there was no question as to how quickly she and her son needed to get help.
"I mean, it's his heart, so we knew we had to take it seriously," she said.
Kahn said that while CPR is effective, if something happens in the middle of the night, it might not be an option, which is why the LifeVest is so critical.
"It's that 10 or 15 seconds where if you don't have it on, you're done," he said.
Wearing the device was an adjustment, but Wilt said it was "just something you have to do."
Wilt is now retired from driving trucks -- in Virginia, someone with a defibrillator is not supposed to drive a commercial vehicle. However, he works on them now, and recently took classes for wind technology.
"I even wrote a paper on the LifeVest for one of my college classes," he said.
The device cost about $3,500 a month, Wilt said, which could've created a difficult situation since he didn't have insurance to cover it. Zoll, a company which develops and markets medical devices, helped Wilt with the financial end of things.
Wilt has a permanent defibrillator implanted in his chest, but he said he would recommend a LifeVest to anyone who needs that "extra protection."
"It took me a long time to realize that it was a good thing to have," he said. "But Dr. Kahn was right, and I'm glad I had that thing on when I did."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org