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A Family Focused on Heart

Jan 03, 2018 09:23AM ● By Digital Media Director

By: Alex Strauss

 The Stys names - and even their faces - have been synonymous with heart care in the Sioux Falls region for many years. The three Warsaw natives are among 13 cardiovascular disease specialists at Sanford USD Medical Center. Not only are they each distinguished experts in their field, but they also each have a heart for new challenges, for patients, for Sioux Falls, and for each other.

Maria Stys, MD

When people ask Maria Stys where her accent is from, she always says Clear Lake, South Dakota. Although she was born and raised in communist Poland, in many ways, she considers Clear Lake the “hometown” of her new life.

‘I finished medical school in Poland on a Friday, got married on a Saturday, and landed in the US on Sunday,” says Stys. “New life, new country, new language. It was all new.”

Her greatest wish had been to become a doctor, but her greatest fear was that she wouldn’t make the grade in her highly competitive new country. But with encouragement from her new husband, Adam, Stys was accepted into the internal medicine residency program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY), where Adam would study cardiology.

“In Poland, healthcare was run by the government. But in New York I saw that I was able to actually make a difference in human lives,” says Stys. “This was even better motivation to study and be good in medicine.”

Her knowledge of Latin helped her grasp English quickly (she also speaks Russian and German) and, just a few years later, the Stys family and their new baby daughter were living in Clear Lake, she practicing internal medicine, he, cardiology. Five years and two more daughters later, Maria decided that she, too, was attracted to cardiology.

“Only six to eight percent of people in cardiology are women,” muses Stys. “This was just like a green light for me.”

So it was back to SUNY for a cardiology fellowship (during which time Stys had her fourth child, a son) then to Sanford Cardiovascular Institute in Sioux Falls, where she is now director of Women’s Cardiovascular Disease. In addition to her work and family responsibilities (two of her children are now in college and two are still at home), she is active with the AHA’s Go Red for Women initiative, is an assistant professor at the medical school, and is working to establish a clinic for pregnant women with heart disease.

“People say, how did you do all that? But the more work we have, the more organized we are,” she says. “Cardiology means that we always have to be on our toes and keep learning new things.”

Adam Stys, MD

Math whiz Adam Stys had a full scholarship to study computer science in Canada when he decided to sit for his medical school entrance exam in Warsaw instead. Like Maria, Adam and his younger brother Tom were natives of Poland, but had grown up in Nigeria, the sons of mathematicians.

“My dad said he would buy me tickets to Warsaw to take the exam,” says Adam Stys. “He said, ‘I don’t think you will get in, but you can try.’”

But Stys did get in to Warsaw University Medical School where he met Maria in his last year. (“She bought me lunch, which I thought was a good sign,” he laughs.) Although Nigeria was home, Poland was rich in history for Stys, who enjoyed summer visits to his grandparents’ farm and did his Ob/Gyn rotation at the hospital where three generations of his family had been born. 

Attracted to the mechanical aspects of the heart, Stys originally set his sights on cardiothoracic surgery. But a few months at London’s National Heart and Lung Institute doing transplants with a renowned surgeon changed his mind. “After 12 hours a day of holding the retractors, I decided that this was not for me,” says Stys.

On the other hand, Stys liked the challenges of the emerging field of interventional cardiology. After completing his fellowship at SUNY, Stys recalled his visits to Sioux Falls while in Clear Lake and decided to interview at Sanford.

“One of my first meetings with administration at Sanford, I said I would like to do two things: I would like to establish a cardiology fellowship and I would like to see Sanford build a heart hospital,” says Stys. Within 18 months, both were a reality.

 Since that time, Stys has helped keep Sanford on the leading edge of heart care with innovations like transcatheter aortic valve implantations, percutaneous mitral valve repairs, absorbable stents, and other new techniques. Last year, he helped implement an interventional cardiology fellowship and now serves as program director for both the Cardiovascular Disease and Interventional Cardiology Fellowship Programs.

When asked what it is like to work with both his brother and his wife, Stys calls it “very comfortable”. “When we discuss our work at home, patients often get a double or triple consult without even knowing it,” he says.

Tomasz “Tom” Stys, MD

For much of his life, Tom Stys has followed in his older brother’s footsteps, including completing medical school in Warsaw and residency at SUNY. Every now and then, however, their roles have been reversed; Tom finished his interventional training before Adam, who then trained under him in New York.

Stys says he always loved working with his hands and even had his own animal lab during medical school. He saw interventional cardiology as the practice of the future. “Innovation in heart care is evolving in the direction of doing more and more complex procedures, less and less invasively,” he says. “This will continue to grow.”

Stys joined Sanford in 2004 (three years before his brother) in part because he and his wife, a New Yorker, wanted to raise their son in a more “family friendly” place. It turned out to be a good fit, both personally and professionally.

“I saw huge potential for growth here, both for the system itself and also for my own personal career development,” says Stys, who is now medical director of Sanford Cardiovascular Institute and has just finished his second term on the board of the American Heart Association. “I take personal pride in the heart program that we have created.”

Stys is especially proud of Sanford’s structural heart disease program (which he calls one of his “pearls”) including transcatheter aortic valve Implants. During the six years he has been doing the procedure, the TAVI program has progressed to the point where, on valve days, Stys often does as many as seven.

As far as working with his brother, Tom admits that the two are highly competitive But he is also quick to compliment Adam, whose office is literally next door to his own at Sanford, and is always happy to work at his side.

“I haven’t had another set of hands that I trust as much as Adam’s” says Stys. “I trust in his excellence. If we are doing a complex case, we usually scrub together.”

Like Adam and Maria, Tom and his wife have four children and all are glad to have made Sioux Falls their adopted home.

“I know that I would not be as happy in New York or Europe or Africa,” says Stys.