Stephen Wheeler’s health problems began almost a decade ago, in 2007, when he learned he had a blockage in his left carotid. “If the carotid is blocked, what else is blocked?” he remembers thinking.
But those were just the first of many doctors’ visits and procedures to come, and today, Wheeler is enrolled in the inaugural class of Heart Failure University – a free, five-session course at UCHealth Memorial Hospital that’s designed to educate patients about managing heart disease and living healthier lives.
“My wife calls it the Heart Success University,” Wheeler said. “The emphasis is to maintain the progress that one has made … to hold steady and maintain through diet and exercise and medication. The Heart Failure University goes over each area in quite a bit of detail.”
Each week of the program focuses on a different topic. Class 1, for instance, provides an overview of heart failure that includes information about the heart’s structure and symptoms associated with heart failure. The class about medication covers a wide range of subtopics – the potential side effects of certain medications, specific drugs to avoid and the importance of lab tests, among them.
Instructors change with each topic; pharmacists, social workers, case managers, dietitians and exercise physiologists participate in the program.
“I want to empower patients to be knowledgeable about heart failure,” said Heather Mazzola, an acute care nurse practitioner who designed the program at Memorial. “What’s important is that they know they are not alone and that we are here to help them and are here to answer any questions they have.”
Dr. Russell Strader, Heart Failure University program director, said how patients take care of themselves “dramatically impacts their disease and how well they feel.”
“Teaching our patients about the diet and exercise needs specific to heart failure, and helping them understand the medications, procedures, and testing required to treat their condition, empowers them to partner with their providers to obtain the best possible outcomes. HFU is an integral and vital part of that process.” Strader added.
The program is open to anyone in the community, and family members and close friends are also invited to attend.
For Wheeler, who retired from a job with the City of Colorado Springs in 2005, the classes have been invaluable. Because of his active lifestyle, heart failure – a condition in which the heart does not pump with normal efficiency – was unexpected.
“I’ve always been athletic,” Wheeler said. “I’ve done the (Pikes Peak) Ascent five times and played competitive basketball up until I was 60,” he said.
But in addition to the blocked arteries, he also was diagnosed with arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm that required monitoring. His heart condition became more serious in 2015. As he was about a half-hour into a hike on the Santa Fe Trail, he began struggling with what should have been an easy walk for him.
He turned around on the trail, and it took him two hours to reach his vehicle.
“I got back to the truck, went home and like an idiot waited a few days to see if it would correct itself,” he said. “It didn’t.”
He was told the upper chambers of his heart were beating 450 times a minute; normal heart rhythm is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. The erratic rhythm – known as atrial fibrillation – affected his lower heart chambers, and he was at high risk for a stroke. He saw a cardiologist at Memorial Hospital the next day, and surgery was scheduled for a defibrillator, a device designed to recognize abnormal heart rhythms and deliver electrical shocks to restore a normal beat.
Today, Wheeler is vigilant about his heart health. He follows a strict diet that basically cuts out all salt. He eats a lot of fruits, veggies and fish. He stays active by bicycling and swimming.
He points out a handout from Heart Failure U prevented him from taking an over-the-counter medication at home that could have had disastrous consequences if mixed with his heart medication.
“Something in the back of my head said ‘check the list before you take these,’” he said. “Information like that, that’s handy at your disposal, is comforting and can help you avoid a situation you don’t want.”
So far, Wheeler has attended three classes, with two more to go before he “graduates.”
“I have those on my calendar and I won’t miss them,” he said.
UCHealth Memorial Hospital is offering new, free classes as part of “Heart Failure University,” which meets the second Tuesday of the month from 2-4 p.m. The classes are designed to educate patients about what it means to be diagnosed with heart failure. Classes are held on the 6th Floor of the East Tower at Memorial Hospital Central, 1400 E. Boulder St. Upcoming classes will be held April 12, May 10, July 12 and Aug. 9. No class will be held in June; classes resume in July and continue through November. Just drop in, you are welcome!
UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital (720-848-6524) and UCHealth in northern Colorado (970-221-1000) also offer Heart Failure University classes.