WEST DUNDEE, Ill. — If not for a cardiologist coming to his workplace to give a lunch-time talk about heart health, Neal Belcher might not be alive today.
The 53-year-old Woodstock resident knew something was off in early 2015 — he had unexplainable bouts of fatigue, his legs were swollen from water retention, and he was short of breath walking from the parking lot to his work at Abrasive Technology, a factory in Elgin.
None of that prompted him to go see a doctor. "I was stubborn, I guess," he said.
When he heard Dr. Agnieszka "Aga" Silbert listing common symptoms of an unhealthy heart, Belcher realized he couldn't ignore it anymore. He made an appointment to see the cardiologist in her West Dundee office and ended up having open heart surgery at Presence St. Joseph Hospital in Elgin to correct a narrowing of his aortic valve.
Life is much better now, but without that serendipitous workplace talk, "I might have waited too long to see a doctor," Belcher said. "I would probably die."
People commonly ignore symptoms of illness and avoid going to the doctor, hoping things will resolve on their own, or fearing that something is seriously wrong and not wanting to face the consequences, Silbert said.
"I'm guilty of it, too," she said, recounting her delay in getting checked for a running injury that turned out to be a stress fracture in her heel.
That's why, Silbert said, she likes to reach people by giving heart health talks at workplaces, churches and social clubs throughout the Fox Valley, and appearing on Polish radio once a week. She also runs a women's heart support group at various locations through Presence Health.
"I feel it's important," she said. "I love doing it because I love talking with people. It's fun for me. And I love the feedback. I love when people say, 'I learned something.'"
Several patients contacted Silbert after hearing her recorded talks on Polish language radio station WNVR 1030-AM.
Jerry Bartosik, 50, of Plainfield said he'd been ignoring the occasional pains he felt in his heart until he heard Silbert on the radio on a Thursday in March. He was five minutes from West Dundee, so he decided to call her office.
The following Monday, he had bypass heart surgery at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin.
"When he woke up, was extubated and able to speak, I said, 'How's it going?' " Silbert said. "He said, 'I think the radio saved my life.' I said, 'I think it did.'"
What inspired him to call, Bartosik said, was hearing Silbert talk about her approach to disease.
"She's looking at the patient through the whole body, not just the heart," he said. "It's not just about the heart problem. It's diet and lifestyle. For 30 or 40 minutes before she started to examine me, she talked to me about every aspect of my life."
Heart health is about treating patients' health as a whole, Silbert said.
"The way I practice cardiology, the most important thing is lifestyle. It's not just the medication; it's a holistic approach to things."
For example, some patients need to lose weight to lower their risk of heart disease, but some complain of poor sleep that makes them too tired to exercise, she said. So she first addresses their lack of sleep by prescribing regimens that can include meditation, stretching and nighttime breathing machines.
A breast cancer survivor, Bochenek said she was inspired by Silbert's admonition that people like her especially must care for their hearts.
Silbert asked her to wear a 24-hour heart monitor for a month and diagnosed Bochenek with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to fatal blood clots. Bochenek had heart surgery in December at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.
"Dr. Silbert opened my eyes that such irregular beating might cause a stroke, which I absolutely did not know. I was shocked," Bochenek said. "I was scared to do the surgery, I was afraid I might not wake up. But it was great, and I'm doing well."