ZEPHYRHILLS — Harold Zoller was making jokes. It was his first day back on the golf course in more than a month, and he was thrilled to be out, despite a stiff wind that negated the sun's warmth.
"If I have to have mouth to mouth, let me die," the 72-year-old told a member of his foursome.
A month ago, the snowbird from Michigan was unable to do much. Two years ago he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition that speeds up the heart rate. Zoller's pulse was about 150 beats per minute; the normal range is usually 70 to 80. Without treatment it can lead to heart failure and stroke.
But a surgical procedure now offered locally is letting him return to a more normal life.
He smacked the ball with his driver, sending it sailing down the fairway.
The delivery impressed an observer.
"Hey," the man shouted. "If you hit the ball like that, where'd you get that surgery?"
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Zoller, who always loved to boat, play golf and cut down trees, wondered if he'd ever be able to do those things again. His doctor in Michigan put him on medicine but shied away from surgery because his aorta was upright instead of lying at an angle. That put the body's main artery close to a critical area of the heart.
"He was afraid I'd bleed to death," Zoller said.
His condition worsened. Routine chores left him winded and needing a nap. He also had to cut back to from 18 holes to nine. He decided to see doctors in Zephyrhills, where he had spent winters for the past four years.
At the Florida Medical Clinic, he saw Dr. Nadim Kahn. The 38-year-old electrophysiology specialist deemed him a good candidate for a 10-year-old surgery called ablation. Like a heart catheterization, it involves going up through the groin. One catheter has an ultrasound and works like a GPS to tell the doctor where to safely venture. The other has a device that allows the doctor to heat areas that are firing off irregularly, stopping those electrical impulses from traveling through the heart, and lowering the heart rate.
"I create a kind of dead zone," explained Kahn, who has put together a video to explain the complex procedure to laymen.
Kahn has done 150 of these procedures, including those while in training. But the one done on Zoller was the first for Florida Hospital Zephyrhills.
It's under the umbrella of the hospital's heart institute, a department that has seen rapid growth in the past few years. In January 2006 the heart institute opened two state-of-the-art cardiac surgery suites and began featuring round-the-clock emergency cardiac care. It also offers two cardiac catheterization labs where electrophysiology like Zoller's can be done and where pacemaker and cardiac defibrillators can be installed.
"I didn't know I was the first," Zoller said. "I remember there were a lot of people in the hall that day."
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It was a big day for the medical center that started in 1985 as a country hospital.
"We can do everything but the transplant," said Lyn Acer, who oversees the marketing of the heart institute.
Longtime employees remember a far more simple institution.
"We could hold four patients," said Evelyn Williams, who was a nurse in the intensive care unit of the old Jackson Memorial Hospital, the county-owned Dade City facility that became East Pasco Medical Center and moved to Gall Boulevard when nonprofit Adventist Health System bought it in the early 1980s. (Officials renamed it Florida Hospital Zephyrhills in 2006 to make it more identifiable with the other hospitals it owns.)
Williams, who runs the cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program, recalls how they bused patients to the new building when it opened on Gall Boulevard in 1985. The demand was so great that medical staff ended up having to be brought in from other Adventist hospitals and housed in motels.
"It felt like walking into a dream," she said of the new lobby.
Williams' program also evolved. She started it in one small room with a single treadmill, a code cart and an EKG machine. Exercise equipment was stored in a closet and taken to patients' rooms.
"We had to ask visitors to leave," she said.
Today, the hospital has a fitness center with 10 treadmills that is also used by the staff and public.
Bob Kamienski, an administrator who has been at the hospital for 21 years, said it was "more of a country hospital back then."
It strives to maintain strong community ties with events like the annual Christmas tree decorating party while also offering services of a sophisticated metropolitan medical center.
Getting the state's permission to perform open-heart surgery, which the hospital secured in 2002, was a huge step. The service helps to keep an elderly population from having to commute, often after dark, to Tampa or St. Petersburg.
"It raised the bar," he said.
Most recently, the hospital, in a partnership with Tampa's University Community Hospital, won coveted state permission to build an 80-bed hospital along the busy Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Wesley Chapel. Services there will be different, reflecting a much younger population. Expect more of an emphasis on obstetrics and pediatrics, as well as sports medicine.
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As for Zoller, he's easing back into regular activities. The doctor put him on medicine to substantially slow his heart rate during his recovery, which will take a few months.
"It's so my heart can heal," he said.
When that happens, Zoller says, he can't wait to be able play 18 holes again.
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.