Centura Health has more experts in more places throughout the region. Start your health journey by finding the right one for you.
While living and working in Vail, ski instructor Gus Nicholson suffered an injury. “Sometime in the early 2000’s,” he said. While he was rehabbing from the injury, a routine exam uncovered a heart murmur. “The doctor asked if I knew I had a heart murmur,” said Nicholson. I didn’t. I spent most of my life as an athlete, not knowing I had this condition.” A cardiologist recommended immediate surgery, but Nicholson didn’t feel prepared to go through surgery and everything it would demand. “At the time I was still fairly asymptomatic,” he said
Several years later, the 60 year old was living in Denver when he finally started experiencing symptoms. “I feel like I basically waited for technology to catch up with my lifestyle,” Nicholson said. Having done some research and preparation, Nicholson knew he wanted minimally invasive procedure. He narrowed his choice to the Mayo Clinic, or Dr. John Mehall, Director of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. “While I was preparing and doing some research, Dr. Mehall’s name reemerged and he quickly became my first choice,” said Nicholson. “My wife, son, and I went to see him and he sold me on the procedure and everything that came with it,” he said. “He was very honest, had a great manner, and made me feel very confident in the physician and the facilities.”
Nicholson was equally impressed with the care he received during his experience at Penrose-St. Francis. “The intensive care nurse took such great care of me,” he said. “Dr. Mehall was always accessible, always took the time to talk to me and he always had a great bedside manner.” As an unexpected benefit, Dr. Mehall was able to set up Nicholson’s family in the John Zay Guest House, a “Home Away From Home,” directly across from the hospital, for eligible patients and family members of the Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. “Having my family stay at the guest house worked out terribly well,” Nicholson said. “We are very grateful for that opportunity.” These days, Nicholson is feeling great and says “I’m right where I should be. It was definitely the right thing to do at the right time.
Sixteen years ago, on his 61st birthday, Dan Danielson had a heart attack. For a number of years he had also been experiencing atrial fibrillation (a-fib), so he and his doctors were used to keeping a close eye on his heart. He quickly recognized the symptoms three months ago when he started feeling some chest pain. After running some tests, his cardiologist at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services determined surgery was the only option.
“It was a planned surgery,” Danielson said. “Not an emergency. I have a great cardiologist at Penrose-St. Francis and he recommended
Dr. Betty Kim to perform the surgery.”
Danielson underwent quintuple coronary artery bypass surgery on October 13, 2013. Due to some small complications, the surgery took around nine hours, but “The end result is very good,” said Danielson. “I am expected to be fully healthy.”
In order to improve heart function, coronary bypass surgery restores blood flow and oxygen to the heart by diverting the flow of blood around a section of blocked artery. Quintuple bypass surgery signifies that Danielson had five clogged coronary arteries.
Recovery from a quintuple bypass is not a speedy process, but Danielson received excellent support during his encounter and said “It was a wonderful experience. I was well cared for by many, many dedicated people.”
As part of the recovery process
Cardiac rehab was another step Danielson came to appreciate. “They really slowed me down and kept the recovery under control.” he said. “If I had been left to my own devices, I would have just tried to go fast and get though it.”
The cardiac rehab program at Penrose-St. Francis includes exercise training, heart-health education, and counseling to help reduce stress so patients can return to an active life.
The post-operative phase is essential for patients recovering after a heart attack or heart surgery to prevent future heart problems and to address risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight or obese, diabetes, smoking, lack of physical activity, as well as depression, and other emotional health concerns.
“I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me,” Danielson said. “I am very hopeful that this surgery takes care of all my heart related issues for some time.”
As an Air Force and airline pilot, when doctors discovered Mark Meyer’s heart arrhythmia at the age of 45 it was, unfortunately, the end of his flying career.
“I was medically retired from the Air Force,” he said “and FAA regulations meant that I could not fly for an airline.”
Cardiac arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm that can interfere with the heart's ability to work. It can cause the heart to beat to fast (tachycardia), or it can cause the heart rate to be too slow (bradycardia). Arrhythmia’s can sometimes result in life-threatening situations such as blood clots, stroke, or cardiac arrest.
Many arrhythmias’ can be so brief that it doesn’t affect the overall heart rate. Symptoms can include being overly tired, short of breath, or lightheaded and dizzy, but it’s not uncommon for people with arrhythmias to not notice any symptoms.
As a resident of Evergreen, Meyer had been seeing doctors in Denver, but was not entirely content with the care he received.
“Eventually I was connected to Dr. Barber at Penrose-St. Francis,” Meyer said “and he tried really hard to recover my flying career.” Dr. Michael Barber, with Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, wrote letters and sent in records and made what Meyer calls “a good faith effort” to do whatever he could to help Meyer continue his career as a pilot. “It’s what I appreciate most,” said Meyer.
“Most of the doctors I had seen before Dr. Barber just treated me and said ‘sorry,’” added Meyer.
Doctors are not sure what caused Meyer’s arrhythmia, but think it’s most likely a result of a congenital heart defect. To regulate his heartbeat, doctors inserted an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, (ICD). As a means of returning an abnormal heartbeat to normal, the ICD detects cardiac arrhythmia and corrects it by sending a brief electrical impulse to the heart.
“The original ICD procedure was done by the Air Force,” Meyer said. “I’m on my third one now and Dr. Barber did the last two.”
Research shows that ICDs can help improve the quality of life and even extend the life of many patients. “It sure seems to do the job,” said Meyer. “I’ve had some incidents where it is has had to shock me.”
Unsettled by shortness of breath and chest pains in November 2012, Clint Heintzelman decided to visit an urgent care clinic in Monument. Sure enough, an EKG detected some irregularities and he was sent by ambulance to Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.
“At Penrose I was connected with Dr. Pam Taylor, who discovered I had a couple of blockages,” Heintzelman said. Dr. Taylor inserted two small wire mesh tubes, called stents, to help keep the arteries open.
“A month later I was back,” said Heintzelman. “I ended up with another stent.” Then, surprisingly, in January, he was back again and Dr. Taylor inserted a fourth stent.
Heintzelman also participated in Penrose-St. Francis cardiac rehab which he says was very helpful in learning how to live with heart disease, and how exercise and nutrition are necessary to maintain a healthy heart and prevent future heart problems.
“I found the rehab program really helpful with education and resources,” said Heintzelman. “They taught me a lot about exercise and the right techniques.
Now taking medication to help with his heart health, Heintzelman notes that he didn’t have any conditions that indicated he was at risk for heart trouble.
“My cholesterol was a little high, but not in the dangerous zone and my blood pressure has always been fine,” he said. “Another oddity is that I have no family history of heart disease.”
In fact, many patients are alarmed when first diagnosed with heart disease because of the lack of recognized risk factors. However, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women – one in every four deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking certainly increase risk for heart disease, several other conditions can also have direct heart consequences including diabetes, being overweight, poor nutrition, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.
Early action is the only answer to decrease these numbers, and knowing the warning signs is crucial. Things like chest pain, upper body pain in the arms, neck, back, jaw or upper stomach, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, and cold sweats can all be indications of potential heart disorders and you should see your doctor right away.
When Earline Crochet’s 47 year old son had a heart attack in September, she was understandably saddened. “His LAD artery, the widow-maker, was 90 percent blocked,” she said. Doctors inserted two stents in his arteries to set him on the road to recovery.
“I like to walk for exercise,” said Crochet. “But a couple weeks after my son’s procedure, I started getting pains between my shoulder blades and into my chest.” Since she was still able to continue yoga, house keeping and other physical activities, Crochet figured it was sympathy pains for her son.
In October, Crochet and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a cruise to Nova Scotia. Whenever the ship docked, they enjoyed taking the opportunity to walk through the area and do some sightseeing.
Unfortunately, Crochet was still having pain and would have to stop frequently to sit down and catch her breath. They agreed it was time to see the doctor.
When an EKG showed some cardiac abnormality, Crochet was sent to Dr. David Albrecht at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, who mentioned the EKG indicated there may have been previous heart incidents and a cardiac catheterization was necessary.
“During the catheterization Dr. Albrecht discovered my LAD artery was 100% blocked,” said Crochet. “He told me that the blockage was so bad, he had to carefully pull out the catheter because he was afraid it would cause the artery to rupture.”
Crochet underwent open heart surgery with Dr. John Mehall the next day. “Luckily I only needed the single bypass,” she said.
With cardiac rehab, Crochet’s cholesterol has gone from 199 to 133 and recent lab work showed everything was “normal or better than normal,” she said.
“I really want people to realize that even though I had very minor symptoms, it turned out to be a very serious problem,” Crochet said. “I was very lucky that nothing worse happened. Everyone should make sure to tell their doctor about any symptoms they are having.”
As volunteers at Penrose-St. Francis, Crochet and her husband were thrilled she and her son both were in such good hands for their procedures. “From the bottom up to the top, the staff all along the way gave us the best of care.”
One day in April 2003, Dave Wilkerson woke up to realize he was behind the wheel of his car, rolling through the middle of a farmer’s field in Eastern Colorado.
“I had been extremely tired, and was having trouble staying awake during meetings at work,” Wilkerson said. “But I thought I was battling the flu, or bronchitis.”
Opening his eyes to a startling view from inside his vehicle was the wake-up call he needed to see his doctor.
His primary doctor sent him to the emergency room where they discovered Wilkerson was suffering from atrial fibrillation, (a-fib).
“Lots of different medications didn’t seem to help much,” he said, “I was still tired and had no energy.”
An atrial fibrillation ablation procedure proved ineffective as well. Wilkerson ended up right back in a-fib later that day.
Finally, a cardiac electrophysiologist inserted an Implantable Cardioverter Defribillator, (ICD). An ICD is a pager-sized device implanted into a patient’s chest to reduce the risk of dying if the heart goes into a dangerous rhythm.
“The first time it shocked me, I was in the shower,” said Wilkerson. “I didn’t realize what was going on and went to the doctor.” After a check-up, doctors assured Wilkerson the ICD did exactly what it was supposed to do.
“The second time I was walking along in South Park and felt a pain radiate through my left arm,” he said. “This time I knew what was coming, but it still almost knocked me over.”
Wilkerson noted that with all the technical medical terminology, it helps to think of the the cardiac electrophysiologist as an electrician for his heart, while his cardiologist, Dr. Pam Taylor with Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, is more like the plumber for his heart.
“The team at Penrose-St. Francis is a great group of professionals,” Wilkerson said. “They take time to get to know you and make you realize they can fix it, and it’s not really so scary.”
Affectionately referring to his ICD as “Thumper,” Wilkerson says “It’s what keeps me going. I’m able to do most everything I want to, I just need to be a little more careful about it.”
Living with a form of heart disease called Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP) isn't necessarily life-threatening and doesn't always require treatment or even a change in lifestyle. MVP is caused by the heart’s mitral valve not closing properly and can occur at any age but is more frequent in men over 50.
Because of his MVP, Skip Northcross was sensible about getting regular blood tests at the 9-Health Fair, and keeping up with annual checkups. “Most of the time the blood tests didn’t show any change,” Northcross said.
However eventually a blood test at the health fair did indicate some concern and he was instructed to see his primary care doctor in Westcliffe, who then directed him to follow up with his cardiologist, Dr. Lee, in Pueblo.
An electrocardiogram indicated that Northcross’ heart was pumping approximately five-percent less than normal. “It wasn’t a big deal at the time,” he said. “They just wanted to keep an eye on it. It was bordering on being a serious problem.”
Ultimately, rather than wait for an emergency, Northcross and his cardiologist decided it was time to fix the problem. “I had heard about Dr. Mehall at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services and everyone said ‘he’s the man,’” said Northcross. “And Dr. Lee agreed that Mehall was an excellent doctor.”
After a series of tests, Dr. Mehall recommended surgery to repair the valve and Northcross elected to “just get it over with.”
“The staff was excellent,” Northcross said. “My wife and I were given a notebook of things to expect. It included a video of the process and what to do after you go home. It was very helpful and answered most of our questions.”
Typically a minimally invasive surgery, a CT scan showed an abdominal aneurysm forcing Dr. Mehall to change surgical methods. “He ended up performing a MAZE procedure,” said Northcross. “It was a little more involved than we first thought.”
Afterward, while recovering in the hospital, doctors discovered his “heart beats just weren’t where they wanted them to be,” he said, and consequently a pacemaker for Northcross also became necessary.
Nevertheless, he has nothing but positive things to say about the entire experience. “Someone was always available to me,” he said. “Everyone on the team is great and anytime I needed something, they were there.”
Stephanie Hammar is a Coloradoan who appreciates the abundant opportunities to spend time outdoors. As an athlete she puts fitness high on her list of priorities and calls herself a “nutrition-fanatic.”
At 39 years old, however, she was feeling bouts of nausea that radiated in her chest along with shortness of breath. Due to the variation in symptoms between men and women still being discovered, Hammar was misdiagnosed several times. Then, after collapsing, she found out her main LAD artery was 99% blocked.
Since discovering her heart disease, Hammar has had seven separate heart events in seven consecutive years, including stents, post-angioplasty restenosis (PARS) and even a massive heart attack at the young age of 42.
“I felt like a freak of nature,” she said “I was young, athletic, and fit. What did I do to bring this on myself?” said Hammar.
Realizing there must be other young women also struggling with the confusion and isolation from heart disease, she was led to WomenHeart, The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease and attended a five-day training class specifically aimed at women with heart disease.
After talking with the folks at Penrose-St. Francis, Hammar launched a WomenHeart support group to help women thrive in their journey for health. “We learn to accept our new normal in a safe place with others who’ve really been there,” she said.
Eventually, after eight-plus years, Hammar learned her heart problems were directly caused by Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH). “Another support group participant who was willing to share her own story finally led me to the right treatment,” Hammar said.
“It really shows how the support network can be so empowering, educational and help you learn to be your own best advocate,” she said.
According to The FH Foundation, FH is a common genetic disorder, which disrupts the body’s ability to clear cholesterol from the blood resulting in abnormally high levels of LDL-cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”).This condition begins at birth and can cause heart attacks at an early age.
Hammar is committed to raising awareness about women’s heart disease, especially because it kills more women annually than men, and the chance for recurrence is much higher in women. However, she believes everyone should have the benefits of a support group and therefore a women’s-only group as well a as co-ed group are offered.
“Nobody thinks it will happen to them,” Hammar said. “But in reality, heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women.”
Our search tools require a zip code to match the location nearest you.