Laura Ruszczyk could not sit upright and think for long periods of time. She was continually dizzy and had to give up her beloved road bike. She even had to retire from her job as an elementary school counselor.
Her dysautomomia, which was diagnosed in August 2011, was ruining the only thing she wanted out of life — normalcy.
It wasn’t until she secured an appointment with Dr. Blair Grubb at The University of Toledo Medical Center that she began to hope and think that life with an autonomic nervous system disorder was manageable.
She waited 16 months to meet the world-renowned autonomic specialist who has a wait list of more than 600 people. The distance did not matter. She drove 300 miles from Buffalo, N.Y., to Toledo.
“You hear his name, see it throughout the research on dysautomomia, and expect a giant when you finally meet him,” Ruszczyk, 51, said. “He walked into my exam room and greeted my husband and me with a warm handshake and smile. He listened, explained the autonomic nervous system to us, examined me and gave answers and hope that we would — together — find a treatment plan that gave me a better quality of life.”
Ruszczyk will get to thank Grubb for his medical efforts and well-known bedside manner when Dysautonomia International presents him with the 2015 Physician of the Year Award at its annual conference July 17-20 in Washington, D.C.
Ruszczyk nominated Grubb, specifically citing a life-changing operation to implant a Biotronik Evia pacemaker that works well for her because it responds to both heart rate and blood pressure.
“This award means a lot to me because of all the work that I have done in creating this subspecialty of medicine,” said Grubb, director of Electrophysiology Services at UTMC and Distinguished University Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics. “However, this award isn’t about me. It is about patients and changing their lives. My nurse practitioner and I do what we can for our patients. It is one day at a time with our huge waiting list. We wish we could do more.”
Dysautonomia affects the nerves that carry information from the brain and spinal cord to the heart, bladder, intestines, sweat glands, pupils and blood vessels. Symptoms can include rapid heart rate or slow heart rate, excessive fatigue, thirstiness, shortness of breath, blood pressure fluctuations and bladder problems.
Because many of the sufferers are women, Grubb said he has seen that their concerns are sometimes not taken as seriously by doctors and they are told to rest or drink more water.
Before becoming Grubb’s patient, Ruszczyk’s heart was beating only 40 to 50 beats per minute compared to a healthy rate of 60 to 100. Her heart now beats 62 beats per minute with the pacemaker.
“I can drive almost an hour now, where before I could not drive for more than five minutes,” she said. “Since the pacemaker, I can go into stores. I can shop for 20 minutes. I didn’t think I would ever bike again. I just finished a 10-mile charity ride.”
Lauren Stiles, president of the Dysautonomia International board, said Grubb was chosen from among 50 nominations. This is the second year for this award.
“This award is important because our patient community has a hard time finding doctors who understand autonomic nervous system diseases and how to treat them,” she said. “We think it is important to recognize doctors who are making a difference for these patients.”
Stiles said one of the common themes among Grubb’s patients is how much time he takes with every patient.
“He is a very special physician. He never stops learning. He is inquisitive,” she said. “He has an excellent bedside manner. He never rushes his patients. In addition to advanced research, he understands the psychology of suffering. Patient-centered medicine is a buzzword these days, but Dr. Grubb has been implementing a patient-centered practice for over 20 years, which is why his patients adore him.”
At the conference, Grubb will address the medical community when he talks about how to talk with patients who are suffering from symptoms that aren’t easily explained.
“Some physicians don’t take this area of medicine as seriously as they should,” Stiles said. “Dr. Grubb helps many of his patients feel so much better. He figures them out the best he can. Even when he can’t immediately figure it out, he says, ‘This is real and we’re going to work together to help you get your life back.’”
Ruszczyk remembers when she called Grubb in the middle of the day because she was nervous about her upcoming surgery. He got on the phone with her immediately.
“Dr. Grubb examines patients from all over the world, and he is usually behind schedule and works long into the evening to see everyone,” Ruszczyk said. “He spends as much time as necessary to see each patient in the clinic, but yet he did not rush me on the telephone.”
Dan Barbee, vice president of clinical services at UTMC, said Grubb is a testament to UTMC’s approach to putting the patient first. His waiting list is indicative of how much his expertise and compassion is valued. Patients come from Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Great Britain.
“He’s regarded, literally, as the global leader in his field, and patients came from all around the world to see him here at UTMC,” he said. “We are proud that Grubb is one of our own.”