Patient returns to cardiac ICU to say thanks to his caregivers

July 13, 2021
Lance James hugs Amanda Irons, a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies. Irons cared for James when he was in the hospital for an aortic dissection two years ago. James returned to the unit recently to say thank you to his caregivers. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Lance James held the hand of his youngest daughter, Ava, when he walked through the doors of UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies where he was hit by a surge of emotions.

With help from his wife, Christy, Lance loaded boxes onto a cart and then Dan Cooper, a nurse manager for the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, escorted the family to the elevator which took them to the CICU on the second floor.

As Cooper hit the button to open the doors of the intensive care unit, Lance’s lips pursed and his eyes watered — his mind flashed back to two years ago when he’d been in Colorado for a family reunion and landed on the unit for a very different reason.

In the employee break room, Christy laid out a table cloth and unloaded the boxes — two ‘thank you’ cakes, crackers, cheeses, cookies, fruit, and nutrition bars. Ava set up balloons and flowers. Everything bore Lance’s favorite sports team colors: red and black for Georgia, their home. Lance smiled as the faces of those who had helped him through the toughest part of his life arrived in the break room.

Christy James sets up a table of goodies in the CICU break room for staff, a thank you gift for the unit where her husband, Lance, recovered from an aortic dissection two years earlier. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Summer of 2019: a life-changing experience

Two years ago, Lance and his family were in Estes Park for the reunion. Ava woke ecstatic for that morning’s horseback ride, but her father wasn’t feeling well — he’d been up since dawn coughing and vomiting. Lance told Christy to take their two youngest kids, Ava, now 9, and Bella, now 18, while he’d stay back and rest.

Before Christy could get to the horse ranch, Lance called. Something was wrong; he needed to go to the emergency room, he told her.

Lance James, right, talks to his former CICU caregivers, from left, nurses Kelly Morrow and Kellie White and Nurse Practitioner Jill Hinkle, while visiting the unit recently to say thanks for saving his life two years prior. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Nurses and doctors at the emergency department in Estes Park evaluated Lance. They were concerned and wanted to rule out a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when a blood clot gets lodged in an artery in the lungs, blocking blood flow.

What they found was just as serious. Lance was experiencing an aortic dissection, a serious condition where the inner layer of the aorta — the large blood vessel branching off the heart — tears. This causes blood to surge through the tear and the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate. He was immediately transported to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies where he needed emergency open-heart surgery.

Lance spent three weeks in the CICU, eight of those days he was on a ventilator and sedated.

Returning to say thanks

Two years later, he returned to say thanks to his caregivers, a trip he wanted to make last year but couldn’t because of the pandemic. So, when his relatives decided to have another reunion in Estes Park, Lance knew he had to make a few stops in Loveland.

MCR nurse Claire Dunlap talks to Ava about the picture Ava made for her father’s caregivers. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

On Tuesday, June 15, CICU nurses, physicians, and respiratory therapists wandered in and out of the break room for a hug and to say “hi” once again to Lance. There were tears, laughs and stories about the Georgia blanket he always had with him.

“I’m going to cry talking about this, but every time I asked to go for a walk, you never said no,” he told his former nurses. “It might have taken some time — I was 300 pounds and it took three of you — but no one ever said no. You only said, ‘Keep going, Lance.’ That’s why I wanted to come back and say thanks.”

Lance shared that since his hospitalization, he has quit smoking cigarettes and lost about 60 pounds.

When he was in the hospital, he said, “I was so focused on breathing on my own, I didn’t realize how much more work I would have after.”

Ava gave the nurses a drawing she’d done of a rainbow and when nurses thanked her for the goodies, Ava said: “I’m just glad I have my dad.”

While in Colorado, Lance also visited the office of his surgeon, Dr. Mark Guadagnoili. Guadagnoili had called Lance the year before when he’d learned Lance had planned to visit but couldn’t. Lance still wanted to thank him in person.

Lance laughed as he told Guadagnoili that his work is admired by his doctors in Georgia.

Lance James, right, poses for a picture with his former respiratory therapist Kevin Londrigan, while visiting the MCR CICU recently to say thanks to his caregivers for saving his life two years prior. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Lance James, right, poses for a picture with his former respiratory therapist Kevin Londrigan, while visiting the MCR CICU recently to say thanks to his caregivers for saving his life two years prior. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

“I feel like a model because they’re always asking me to unbutton my shirt (to see the incision Guadagnoili had made) and they are like, ‘Oh, that’s nice. That’s really nice.’”

Lance finished his Colorado trip hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, experiencing the trails he never got to go on during his last visit. He’s adamant that Colorado was where he was supposed to be that summer of 2019.

“It was something that changed my life, and I’m so glad I was in Colorado when it happened. I’m glad I was here,” he said, standing in the CICU. “This is where I was supposed to be.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.