A drink from the championship cup: Hockey offers healing for heart disease survivors

September 28, 2022


Heart transplant patient Nigel Richardson drinks from Avalanche championship trophy as the team’s mascot, Bernie, looks on. Photo by Sonya Doctorian, UCHealth.
Heart transplant patient Nigel Richardson drinks from Avalanche championship trophy as the team’s mascot, Bernie, looks on. Photos: Sonya Doctorian, UCHealth.

After a vigorous day of fresh-powder skiing at Winter Park in March 2021, Nigel Richardson relaxed with a sauna and a shower. After he stepped dripping from the stall, he felt far from at ease. He sweated. His chest was tight. The next day, he sought care, and received the shocking news that his left anterior descending (LAD) artery was nearly completely blocked. An LAD blockage is aptly nicknamed “widow maker” because the artery supplies a good portion of the blood pumped from the left ventricle of the heart to the rest of the body.

Richardson was 58. His previous encounters with the health care system had involved little more than dental work.

Patrick Donnelly was working rigorous manual-labor jobs in Texas oil and gas fields in 2011 when he began experiencing fatigue, shortness of breath and swelling. Providers at a San Antonio hospital diagnosed him with congestive heart failure. He took an ambulance jet back to Colorado to be closer to his family and for additional care. At that time, his ejection fraction – a key measure of the heart’s pumping power – was around 12%, dangerously below the normal range of 50% to 75%.

Donnelly was 23. He was fit, active and appeared otherwise to be in good health.

Patrick Donnelly watches former Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote pour water into the trophy. Donnelly received a left ventricular assist device at UCHealth and is waiting for a heart transplant. Photo by Sonya Doctorian for UCHealth
Patrick Donnelly watches former Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote pour water into the trophy. Donnelly received a left ventricular assist device at UCHealth and is waiting for a heart transplant.

Both Richardson and Donnelly survived their brushes with death and serious disability, with the considerable help of advanced health care and technology at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Richardson lay close to death for days but was ultimately saved by a heart transplant. Donnelly, whose heart failure was caused by cardiomyopathy, a congenital weakening of the muscle, received care from Dr. Eugene Wolfel, with the UCHealth Heart Failure Clinic, and managed his condition for years with medications. However, his health plunged in 2019. After stints in and out of the hospital in San Antonio, he returned to UCHealth, where a surgical team implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to mechanically boost his halting heart. He is now on a transplant wait list.

The two men are connected by more than medicine. They are set on life courses driven by a deep spiritual pull. Their travails have instilled in them a deepening insight into what separates living life fully from merely existing.

Hardware, hockey and healing

On a recent September morning, the two men were at University of Colorado Hospital to share with others their life-defining experiences and bonds. One connection formed long before they met one another. Both are avid hockey fans who began skating on frozen ponds and rinks as youngsters. Clad in Avalanche jerseys, Richardson and Donnelly had barely begun talking about hockey or other crisscrosses in their lives when they were interrupted with the surprise entrance of Colorado Avalanche mascot Bernie the St. Bernard, retired Avalanche star Adam Foote and the bright silver trophy the team earned in June as National Hockey League champions. Richardson and Donnelly playfully drank water, disguised as beer, from the cup with Foote.

The gleaming hardware arrived with Foote and Bernie courtesy of Nigel’s brother, Martin, president and CEO of Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation, a non-profit charity dedicated to the mission of assisting amateur hockey players and their families through tough times caused by injury, illness and other challenges.

Adam Foote, former Avalanche defenseman, points out player names on trophy to Richardson and Donnelly.

“We help our hockey families in their times of need,” said Martin, who has developed strong charitable relationships with former Avalanche players, such as Milan Hejduk and Jan Hejda, as well as the team’s current head coach, Jared Bednar.

The championship cup surprise underscored the deeper ties that bind the two survivors. It was through Dawg Nation that Nigel Richardson connected with Donnelly after his LVAD surgery and helped him through a dark time.

“Hockey was the conduit,” Martin said.

Purpose through pucks

The relationship began when Andy Gerrie, a cancer survivor who worked with Dawg Nation, called Nigel to let him know about a neighbor who needed some help. That was Donnelly. He’d gotten his LVAD in September 2019 but more than a year later was struggling. He couldn’t work, had lost stamina and was understandably discouraged.

“When you are not active, your mood goes down,” Donnelly said. “Everything slows down.”

Nigel agreed to talk with Donnelly, and in early December 2021, Dawg Nation presented him with a check to help defray his living expenses. But as Martin Richardson put it, the money was “secondary.” What Donnelly needed, he said, was a purpose – namely, helping others.

Donnelly began to find that saving grace in the clear waters coursing through the Park Range Ranch in north-central Colorado, where Nigel works. There, Donnelly assisted disabled vets on a Dawg Nation-sponsored fishing trip. The work recharged Donnelly, who is now an ambassador for Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation.

For Donnelly, the Richardsons and others, the fishing trip and other volunteer work that serves others is an elixir with powers that transcend lifesaving medicine or mechanics. “Post-transplant, it was easy [for me] to get depressed and lie around,” Nigel said. “Helping people is healing.”

The power of the donor

He also found a higher purpose that sprang from reflection on the mysterious gift of a lifesaving heart. Who was his benefactor? Where were his loved ones and how had they come to terms with the loss? The questions were all the keener for Nigel because he learned a donor heart had been found for him just one day after he’d been categorized as a “Status 2” transplant candidate with top priority for receiving an organ. The short wait also meant he avoided being confined to bed for a lengthy period, which would have caused his muscles to atrophy. As a result, he was walking the day after the transplant.

“For some people who get a transplant, it’s just an organ and they roll along with their life,” Nigel said. “For me, that’s not been the way.”

A year and a half after his heart transplant at UCHealth, Nigel Richardson is determined to help others, as he was by his donor.

Nigel couldn’t escape a stark realization. “Someone died for me to live,” he said. That thought was a recurring thump. “All I have to do is put my hand on my chest and I can feel that heart beating,” he said. “It’s a constant reminder that this is somebody else in me who made a tremendous sacrifice for me to be where I’m at.”

A week after his transplant, Nigel said, he was “grappling with the reality” of that sacrifice when his transplant surgeon, Dr. Muhammad Aftab, unexpectedly dropped in to see him. After Nigel shared his painfully mixed feelings, Aftab expressed in simple terms the motivation of those who donate. You got a strong young heart, he told Nigel. The donor’s final act on the planet, Aftab added, was to save a life directly – yours and perhaps three or four others.

A search for identity and purpose

Aftab’s words affected Nigel profoundly and sharpened his desire to learn the story of the person who saved him. Working with Donor Alliance, he ultimately connected with the donor’s family through letters, texts and most recently a phone call with the mother of the young man, who had died in an accident. In reconstructing the chronology that led to the transplant, Nigel learned that his donor had died within a relative handful of hours before the lifesaving surgery. The encounters cemented Nigel’s desire to make the most of the days the donation has granted him.

Dr. Mohammad Aftab
Dr. Mohammad Aftab

“I feel obligated,” he said. “The experience has given me new perspective on quality of life and how much you can do to help others.” He also realizes that he is helping the donor’s family by connecting with them.

“They are thankful that I got his heart, and that I am keeping them up to date on my recovery,” Nigel said. “They have gotten a lot of peace knowing that he has left a good life for both him and I.”

A commitment to life

While both Nigel and Donnelly maintain a firm commitment to helping others in need through Dawg Nation and Park Range Ranch, they are also determined to maintain their own physical and mental health by living life on their own terms. One important way: They have both laced up their skates and gotten back on the ice and have played some hockey together.

“I decided a year ago I was going to play hockey again,” Nigel said. “I won’t live life afraid.” He returned to the ice with an emotional skate at the University of Denver. A “good wipeout” while switching from skating backward to forward didn’t discourage him. He acknowledges limitations to his body, but not to his spirit.

“You can do anything, you just have to adjust,” he said.

Donnelly, meanwhile, also decided to take his life back from the lethargy that followed his LVAD implantation. In addition to skating again, he fits regular visits to the gym into his schedule.

“I began finding out what I could do,” he said. “The small wins started to add up, and I felt better about my situation.” He exceeded his own physical expectations and now leads others with physical limitations – people injured in automobile accidents, patients fatigued from chemotherapy, survivors of severe bouts with COVID-19, even an individual with a traumatic brain injury – on Wednesday skates, a Dawg Nation program known as “Hockey Heals.”

Like Nigel, Donnelly recognizes his own physical limitations. “I can run out of gas and hit a wall,” he said. “It’s easy to forget my heart is being helped so much by the LVAD.”

Dr. Eugene Wolfel
Dr. Eugene Wolfel

At the same time, Donnelly doesn’t let his physical boundaries define his possibilities. “It’s within your power to control these things,” he said. “Basically you are proving yourself wrong every day because you don’t think you can do something, and then you show up and you can do it. I just have a better day if I get on the ice or go to the gym to work out for an hour.”

Maintaining will through a wait

His activity and commitment to service helps him endure his time on the transplant wait list, which has now been two years. He is in a difficult gray area. The LVAD has stabilized his health – obviously a good thing – but unless his health declines, it’s difficult for him to move up on the list.

“I really hope this is my year for a transplant,” Donnelly said. In the meantime, he added, “helping people is endlessly valuable to me. It’s what I plan to end up doing the rest of my life if I can.”

Nigel Richardson adheres to the same commitment, all the while keeping his donor close as a spiritual companion.

“I live for both of us and hopefully in a positive way,” he said. “I’m not perfect, but I try.”

About the author

Tyler Smith has been a health care writer, with a focus on hospitals, since 1996. He served as a writer and editor for the Marketing and Communications team at University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth from 2007 to 2017. More recently, he has reported for and contributed stories to the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Bioscience Association.