For years, Brett Samsky had taught people the finer points of mountain climbing, whitewater rafting and hiking along the Appalachian Trail, all the while lugging an 80-pound backpack.
But by his 30s, Samsky found himself experiencing chest pains and struggling to breathe. He was sure something was wrong with his heart, but doctors kept telling him his ticker was just fine.
Samsky had earned two degrees – one in accounting and another in business administration – from the University of Georgia. He knew how to prepare and examine financial records. He knew how to make sure those records were accurate, and that taxes were paid properly and on time.
Doctors, he figured, knew the inner workings of the body. But Samsky and his wife just knew something wasn’t right.
By 2009, they’d gone to three different cardiologists. All three told them nothing was wrong with Brett Samsky’s heart.
A fourth one agreed, but when Samsky’s wife, Louise, asked for an additional test, he obliged.
All three of the arteries that carry blood from the heart were essentially closed. Samsky had two weeks to live, max.
That day, he was admitted to the hospital. Two days later, doctors performed open-heart surgery. Samsky was 44, but alive.
It didn’t take long for his condition to worsen. To try to figure out why, doctors did another procedure and discovered one of the arteries had closed again.
Over the next three years, Samsky would undergo 12 heart procedures, including two at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, ranked the No. 1 hospital in the country for cardiovascular care.
He was there for the second, when a doctor mentioned one of the clinic’s best cardiologists, Vivek Rajagopal, had left there to work here at Piedmont Hospital Atlanta.
Samsky was overjoyed. He had a young son, Connor. It would be much easier on his family if he could be treated closer to his home in Dunwoody.
When he met Dr. Rajagopal two weeks later in 2012, he noticed something different from the other doctors he’d seen.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Samsky remembered. “He was super warm and very caring. He listened to us.”
And it wasn’t just Rajagopal, it was all of Piedmont.
“I felt this hug of caring that I hadn’t felt previously,” he said.
Samsky, who’d left off working at Deloitte & Touche, started and stopped law school, and co-founded a financial firm called Credigy, knew then he’d have to return the favor.
By 2014, Samsky could barely walk, let alone breathe. He was more like a 90-year-old man than 40-something.
He’d undergo three more procedures, including an experimental one that finally stopped his arteries from closing.
“It was like magic,” Samsky said.
Two days after the procedure, he went home. He remembered wanting to return the favor shown him and telephoned the hospital.
What can we do for Piedmont Heart? he asked.
Piedmont had been raising funds to purchase software that would allow doctors to see a 3D image of patients’ hearts. They needed $400,000 more. Samsky wrote them a check, but believed God wanted him to do more.
In 2015, he and his wife went back to Piedmont. This time, they were told the hospital could use a heart failure center. The Samskys donated $6 million to that effort and, in February 2017, the Samsky Advanced Heart Failure Center opened to much fanfare.
Previously, patients had to walk a “blue” mile back and forth across Piedmont Atlanta grounds to get to their appointments. The Samsky center houses a multidisciplinary team of heart specialists in one place and is a top 10 national LVAD (left ventricular assist device) implanting center.
Early last year, Samsky suffered another setback. In March, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but after having half of his left lung removed, he’s back to himself again.
Talking to him recently, none of this seemed possible.
For a man who has spent the past nine years of his life in and out of hospitals, Brett Samsky is extremely upbeat. His eyes danced and his smile never left his face.
At 54, he’s beaten death twice and lived to talk about it, but not everyone is as fortunate.
He knows that heart disease – from congestive heart failure to coronary heart disease and congenital heart disease – is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., particularly here in the Southeast.
That could change if there was a world-class center for heart care. Samsky believes in the idea so much he has donated $11 million more to Piedmont that he will pay over several years to establish the Samsky Invasive Cardiovascular Services Center. The center will be located within the Atlanta hospital’s Piedmont Atlanta Tower, the system’s $603 million expansion project set to open in September 2020.
“This is a lot of money for us, but that’s how important this is to me, my wife and Connor,” he said. “Statistically, I should have been a dead man. We want to make sure other people are able to live, too.”
Samsky said he hopes the center will be the best in the world. He thought about that for a moment.
“Why shouldn’t Atlanta have the best heart services?” he asked.
It’s a good question. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 630,000 Americans die from heart disease each year.
There’s your answer.