When Jeff Zampi’s son took a liking to hockey several years ago, Zampi decided to lace up skates and play himself.
That decision likely saved Greg Kowalewski’s life.
“Lots of things happen for weird reasons, like why did I start playing hockey?” said Zampi, associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and a pediatric cardiologist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “If I didn’t start playing hockey, I wouldn’t have been there. If the whole reason I started playing hockey was for this one night, it’s worth it.
That one night was Dec. 1, 2021, an average Wednesday for Zampi, who looked forward to joining his Mott teammates at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube for their game against the Ice Cats. Zampi knew his friend Kowalewski played for the Ice Cats and for once Zampi was not on call so he could play against his friend.
The two met up at center ice during the pregame warm-up skate to chat.
“We talked about our kids for a minute, and it was great,” Zampi said. “About midway through the third period, after our team scored, I skated out to center ice and as we were getting ready for puck drop and I heard someone say, ‘Something’s not right’ on their bench.”
Zampi skated over to find his friend face down between the bench and the boards in such a way that he also blocked the door to the bench. Kowalewski had a pulse but his breathing was irregular, agonal. And then his pulse was gone.
Zampi jumped over the boards and called for an automated external defibrillator while beginning chest compressions. Once the AED was attached, it suggested a shock be delivered, which did not restore Kowalewski’s pulse, but the shock combined with another couple minutes of CPR did the trick.
Kowalewski, a father of three, eventually gained consciousness, was loaded onto a stretcher — which proved quite the ordeal for those tasked with carrying the 6-foot-4 man over the bench and boards — and taken to the hospital with his wife alongside.
The next day, Kowalewski had a coronary catheterization and he was found to have a major blockade of his left coronary artery, which was successfully stented.
“The rest is history,” Zampi said. “He looks great. We were just at a tournament together with our sons playing a couple weeks ago, and Greg says he feels totally normal.”
In his line of work, Zampi is accustomed to performing CPR and resuscitating patients. Working in the Congenital Heart Center at Mott as director of the congenital catheterization lab as well as attending in the pediatric cardiothoracic care unit, Zampi encounters plenty of life-or-death situations.
But this one was different. He knew the person whose life he was trying to save on a different level.
“I remember the scariest thing while doing compressions was thinking, ‘How am I going to tell his wife and kids?’” he said. “You’re tied to someone through friendship and kids, but now I feel tied together in a different way, almost cosmically if you believe in that.”
Zampi and Kowalewski both recognize that while Zampi’s quick action and CPR helped a great deal in the positive outcome, the AED was the real star. Without the shock administered when it was, Kowalewski might not have survived and even if he did, he would likely have neurological deficits.
The pair aim to raise awareness of the importance of accessible, working AEDs in buildings and want to establish a course that referees at the Ice Cube and elsewhere could take to learn how to use AEDs and recognize when someone is in need of one.
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“It’s a piece of equipment that is cheaper than most of the stuff we put in buildings as far as technology,” Zampi said. “And if you never use it, it’s a good investment because you never had to use it. If you have to use it, it’s a great investment.”
Zampi had never used an AED before that night, but he knows educating others could benefit him beyond the role of lifesaver. He was born with congenital heart disease, had a cardiac catheterization when he was around 5 years old and visits a cardiologist every six months to monitor his condition.
“I really always wanted to be a pediatric cardiologist, before I even knew that you had to be a doctor to be one,” he said. “Throughout high school, college and medical school, I always had that in my mind. It’s been a constant in my life as far back as I remember.”
Kowalewski, for one, is appreciative of Zampi’s choice of career and to play hockey. Although no thanks was necessary, Zampi wears a watch he received from Kowalewski. On the back is a simple but heartfelt message.
“Thank you, 12/1/21.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
I can’t say I have one moment. But as an interventional pediatric cardiologist I get to experience new procedures, novel situations and amazing patient stories frequently, and each of these very memorable moments make me thankful to work with an amazing team of people every day.
What can’t you live without?
Besides my amazing wife and kids, Diet Coke.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Angelo’s. Toast with a side of an omelette (and a Diet Coke).
What inspires you?
My inspiration is best summed up by two words: resilience and Meliora. Resilience is something I feel fortunate to see examples of every day, and the drive to overcome gives me strength and hope. Meliora (Latin, meaning “ever better”) is a word I first heard as the motto of my medical school but well summarizes what I strive to embody professionally and personally each day.
What are you currently reading?
I haven’t read a book for pleasure (or any book cover to cover for really any reason) in over 15 years. This is an active area of discussion in my house. However, I have the book “Think Like a Monk” by Jay Shetty on my nightstand.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
I was born with congenital heart disease (aortic stenosis) and so I have wanted to become a pediatric cardiologist since I was in early elementary school. My two pediatric cardiologists at the University of Rochester were James Manning and Chloe Alexson. I vividly remember sitting in Dr. Manning’s office as a young boy, which was lined with pictures of him fishing, and he spoke TO me about my heart disease. That empowered me to feel in control of my health from a very early age and I try to remember the importance of being talked to and not talked around when I work with kids with heart disease in my daily practice. And with Dr. Alexson, who had a great raspy voice, I remember our conversations about the pros and cons of playing competitive high school sports, getting a tattoo (she won that discussion) and becoming a young adult with congenital heart disease.