Ken and Sheree Kolar’s end of life plan is almost reminiscent of how The Notebook ends. They want to toast each other, go to bed together and die together.
Ken suffering a “widow maker” heart attack would have put a major crimp in that plan.
“If he would have died, you might as well have buried me with him,” said Sheree.
Heart burn vs. heart attack
Ken and Sheree have been married for 40 years and have raised two sons, Kyle and Brandon. Ken and Sheree live in Mesquite, Nev., but have had a presence in Steamboat Springs, Colo. for more than 30 years. Their son, Brandon, now lives in the area.
“We would come to Steamboat Springs when the boys were little. Once we drove through Craig, Colo. you can see Mt. Werner in the distance,” said Sheree. “It’s a special place.”
The summer of 2018 found them house sitting near Clark, Colo., a small community about 30 minutes north of Steamboat Springs. The Fourth of July had come and gone when Ken began feeling what he thought was a bout of heartburn.
“I had a little pain in my chest and some shortness of breath here and there that lasted a few days,” said Ken. “It wasn’t until I searched ‘heart burn vs. heart attack’ and saw that it could be a heart attack that I mentioned something to Sheree.”
Ken suggested that perhaps they make an appointment for the next morning to get things checked out.
“When he said ‘heart,’ we went immediately,” said Sheree.
They swarmed like bees
When they arrived at the emergency department at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs and told the admissions representative that Ken was having chest pains, Sheree said a swarm of people immediately surrounded her husband.
“It was like a beehive,” she said. “They immediately started their protocols and tests to find out what was going on and how they could help Ken.”
“They gave me an aspirin to get my blood flowing,” said Ken. “I started having some cold sweats. That’s the last thing I remember.”
Ken’s chest rose up and then monitor alarms started going off. Sheree let out a bloodcurdling scream.
“I’ve never seen a doctor move so quickly,” said Sheree about Dr. Laila Powers’ response. “She was at his side in an instant. When she couldn’t find a pulse, she started CPR immediately.”
A code was called, and Ken was shocked for Vfib. CRP was resumed, and he began breathing on his own after approximately three minutes.
“As with any emergency, it’s a team approach,” said Powers. “We had great support from nurses from the post-anesthesia care unit, respiratory therapy, Dr. [Jason] Jurva, the cardiologist who was on call, as well as aeromedical transfer.”
While all this was taking place, Sheree buried her head in a pillow, overcome with emotions.
“Aly, one of his nurses, kept coming over to me as they were working on him to let me know what was going on,” she said. “Once they had Ken back – I’ll never forget this – she grabbed me by the arms and looked into my eyes and said, ‘Sheree, he’s alive. He’s talking and he’s going to be ok.’”
The repeat EKG showed a heart attack. Powers discussed the benefits and risks of thrombolytics, or clot busting medication, with Ken and Sheree and proceeded to administer it. A helicopter arrived shortly after that to transfer Ken to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, where Dr. Phil Dattilo placed two stents.
After recovering there for a few days, Sheree drove Ken back to Clark.
Less than two weeks after Ken’s heart attack, he and Sheree found themselves in Jurva’s Steamboat Springs office. An EKG was completed and a prognosis given.
“He said Ken’s outlook was good as far as heart damage and how things looked for the future,” said Sheree.
“Follow-up in the clinical setting is important to make sure the patient has tolerated not only the procedure, but all the medical changes they’re now facing,” said Jurva. “Ken started a number of medications following his heart attack – blood thinners, cholesterol medication, blood pressure medication. We closely monitor how he’s doing on them for the first few weeks post-heart attack to ensure they’re doing what they need to be doing for his health.”
In addition to medication prescriptions, Jurva prescribed a visit with Laura Stout, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Yampa Valley Medical Center, as well as cardiac rehab sessions.
“Medication can only do so much. There are other components to a successful recovery,” said Jurva. “Ken needs to be mindful of what is heart healthy to eat. He needs to limit refined carbs and grains, while increasing fresh produce. An adequate intake of fish and vegetable-based fats is also important, something that most of us lack in a general diet.”
“I exercised some in the past, but I’d always been blessed with a fast metabolism, so I enjoyed lots of cheese, prepared and processed foods, pretty much whatever I wanted,” said Ken. “My dad had a heart attack at 95. I’m 65. I never thought it’d happen to me.”
Sheree said seeing vials of fat and sugar from various foods gave her a good realization of the necessary changes they had to make.
“We’re open to these suggestions because we both want to live,” she said.
The task of getting Ken to feel safe and trust his heart again fell to Susan Cowan, the coordinator of UCHealth Cardiac Rehabilitation at YVMC.
“High blood pressure and high cholesterol were the risk factors we identified with Ken,” said Cowan. “Those can both be impacted by exercise, so we started a training program that would allow him to return to his active lifestyle.”
Another benefit to cardiac rehab? Being surrounded by others going through the same thing.
“Ken was able to meet many other patients while exercising,” said Cowan. “They’re able to share their individual experiences with each other. They really become a support network.”
Traveling the road of life
When Ken and Sheree retire in the near future, they’ll embark on a “two-to 10-year road trip, however long it takes,” as they motorhome throughout the northeast and northwest parts of the country. Alaska is at the top of their list.
“We won’t get too remote this first year,” said Ken. “But I have no doubts that I’ll recover and be able to do what we want to do. We’ll travel and see what we want to see and be there as long as we want to be there.”
“This episode of Ken’s will likely cause us to land here (in Steamboat) – maybe six months here, six months in the desert,” said Sheree.
Thinking back over the events that occurred, Ken and Sheree come back to the same words to describe YVMC, its doctors and staff – community, compassion, responsive, grateful.
“Everyone was incredible,” said Sheree. “In most emergency rooms, it’s, ‘Take a seat, we’ll be with you in a minute.’ Not here.”
“They cared for Sheree as much as they cared for me,” said Ken. “There were angels, for sure. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”