Cardiologist Arif Khalil (left) and CEO Janice Ryba (right) clap as former triple-bypass patient Robert Ray lights the tree during the Hearts of Hope program at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, Ind. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 27, 2013 6:04AM
It was a week before Robert Ray’s 15th wedding anniversary and he had yet to make plans for the special occasion.
As fate would have it, this probably was a good thing, since the Griffith resident ended up in the hospital having open-heart surgery instead of going on a romantic vacation.
Ray related his story to those gathered at the recent Hearts of Hope tree-lighting ceremony at St. Mary Medical Center.
“In the summer of 2003, I experienced back pain that led into my chest,” Ray said. “Being as stubborn as I am, I didn’t go to the doctor right away.”
Fast forward to September of that year, when he couldn’t put it off any longer.
“They found three blocked arteries. I really didn’t want to have surgery; I was only 45 years old. But I didn’t want to die.”
The surgery was successful and Ray, who works in St. Mary Medical Center’s Security Department, has lived to tell his story.
The cardiovascular research program at the hospitals of the Community Healthcare System receives the funds generated from the sale of the crimson lights, which represent those touched by cardiovascular disease. They shine on a white tree set up in the west
tower of St. Mary Medical Center.
Many repeat participants come to the yearly illumination, and they are more than happy to know their donations will benefit heart research.
Audience members Helen and Jim Nawrocki’s family has been touched by heart disease, and the Merrillville couple thought attending the ceremony and buying lights for the tree would be a great way to honor them and show support for the cause.
“I lost a brother and sister to heart disease,” Helen said. “And my husband Jim is a quadruple-bypass survivor.”
Longtime hospital volunteers Carol Sohn, Florence Meinert and Mary Dristas, all of Hobart, attend the tree lighting every year.
“This ceremony is a wonderful thing,” Dristas said. “It’s a learning experience, very informative.”
Sohn agreed, and added after listening to Ray speak, “Hearing a story from someone who actually went through the experience brings this into reality. Bob’s talk will open a lot of people’s eyes.”
Audience member LaVita Brewer, of Gary, lost her husband Kenneth to complications of heart disease in 1997. After open-heart surgery, he developed blood clots that would not heal.
“It’s vital to bring awareness of these issues to the public,” Brewer said. “And further research is very important in order to help other future cardiac patients.”
This year, more than $2,000 was raised by the purchase of the tree lights.