Heart patient, 75, up and running

Val Tirman is no couch potato; running, lifting weights part of diet
April 13, 2016

Val Tirman is no couch potato.

He has been lifting weights and running 60 to 90 minutes a day almost every day since 1952.

For fun, he hikes Colorado’s 14ers. His idea of sightseeing is not to take a leisurely stroll but to run from destination to destination to take in the sights.

The picture of health, Tirman hasn’t smoked a cigarette since 1969 and he hasn’t had a drink since 1981. He is aware of his percentage of body fat – it’s 8 percent.

Out of the blue it seemed, everything changed within a few days of Sept. 10, 2015 – his 75th birthday.

“Things went to hell in a hand basket,’’ he said.

Val Tirman is grateful the care he received at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.

The new reality didn’t sit well with Tirman, a retired Air force lieutenant colonel and a man of considerable accomplishment. He is the co-founder of Productive Data Solutions Inc., serving as its Chief Technology Officer.  Tirman’s credentials include the leadership and management of major system prototyping and implementation efforts for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Air Force Space Command and the Department of the Interior. He taught psychology, computer science and the Russian language at the Air Force Academy for nine years. In the Air Force, he served as an engineer, communications officer, unit commander and associate professor at the AFA.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Val Tirman is grateful for Memorial cardiologists who gave him a second chance.

Throughout his career, he traveled the world, but days after his 75th birthday, when Tirman took two steps up a staircase, he felt as though he would face plant. Walking 10 steps across a room was almost more than he could take. He’d have to sit in a chair and catch his breath.

Tirman figured that he was having an exceptionally wicked bout with sports-induced asthma. Over the years, he’s had occasional trouble with it. He went to see his longtime primary care physician, Dr. Scott Brassfield, who prescribed medications but this time, the prescriptions didn’t help.

When Tirman returned to Dr. Brassfield a week later, the primary care physician did an EKG. The results showed that Tirman had severe atrial fibrillation, the most common type of arrhythmia – a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.

Dr. Brassfield referred his patient to cardiologists at Memorial Hospital, and Tirman quickly met Drs. Russell Strader, David Beutler, Jaime Gonzalez and Jorge Davalos. In the beginning, the doctors advised Tirman of potential options: He may need a pacemaker, an LVAD pump and possibly a heart transplant.

“With AFib,your heart just kind of sits there and flutters — it wasn’t really doing much,’’ Tirman said.

Dr. Strader, who managed Tirman’s associated heart failure, said that “between the blockage in his artery and the irregular heart rhythm, it weakened his heart considerably. It had not been pumping properly, and that’s what made him so short of breath.’’

Dr. Gonzalez performed a cardioversion – a procedure that aims to restore the heart to a normal rhythm – but the procedure did not correct Tirman’s arrhythmia.

During the process of trying to determine the right treatment for Tirman, doctors discovered the left anterior descending artery was 95 percent closed. The left anterior descending artery runs down the front of the heart and supplies blood to the front and main wall. When the LAD is totally blocked or has a critical blockage, right at the beginning of the vessel, it is known as the ‘widow maker.’

“It was very odd, because I had no chest pain,’’ Tirman said. “One of the big problems with AFib is that my autonomic breathing just quit. So I wasn’t getting any sleep. I’d quit breathing and when you are out of breath, you are panicked to get air. I slept on the couch, sitting up and stuff. I guess it was 90-95 percent blocked. Basically, the heart was dying.’’

Having a team of cardiologists working to restore Tirman’s heart proved successful. Strader, for instance, worked to ensure that the heart pumps properly while Beutler worked on the plumbing and Gonzalez worked on the electrical system.

“This team approach, to have cardiologists working in sync to provide optimal heart health, is what makes Memorial different, and why we have such great outcomes, like we did with Mr. Tirman,’’ Strader said.

Dr. Davalos performed surgery, placing a stent in Tirman’s artery. That restored blood flow to his heart. If this didn’t work, Dr. Strader discussed the options of dealing with heart failure.

‘”Once that got in and the blood supply started, it got better, it really did,” Tirman said. “Within a few weeks, I got back to the gym. Now I’m pretty much back. I’m better than I was. For an old fart, I’m doing great.’’

Tirman has returned to his workouts at the YMCA. He’s lifting again and running a bit slower at first and working toward at least 60 minutes a day.

“I really couldn’t ask for more. What they did, it was like magic. They gave me a second chance. Thank God for small favors,’’ Tirman said.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.