Stern warning may have saved man’s life

He entered the doc’s office with what he thought was a cold, but he left with a new plan for life
March 16, 2016
Rob Wright went to his doctor for what he thought was a lingering cold, but he left with a plan for a new life. Wright is now the poster child for lifestyle interventions for treatment of heart problems, according to his doctor. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Four years ago, Rob Wright entered his primary care physician’s office with what he thought was a lingering cold. He left with a plan for a new life.

“When the doctor saw my blood pressure, he looked like a deer in the headlights,” Wright said. “He wheeled in an EKG machine and told me, ‘We don’t need to talk about colds.’”

Soon afterward, Wright reported to a follow-up appointment at UCHealth’s Heart Center in Loveland, where cardiologist Dr. Tristan Dow wasted no time in giving Wright a dose of reality.

“I told him that his heart problems, the atrial fibrillation [irregular heart rhythm] and cardiomyopathy [enlarged heart muscle], were directly related to being overweight and not taking care of himself,” Dow said. “He was a walking candidate for a massive heart attack and could die within a year.”

Temporary measures like medications, Dow acknowledged, might have delayed the inevitable. But the only way for Wright to successfully reverse the damage to his heart and avoid debilitating advanced heart failure was to take charge of his body.

“If Dr. Dow hadn’t brought up the words ‘heart attack,’ I don’t know if I would have changed,” Wright said. “I tossed the junk food from the refrigerator and literally walked into the gym the next day.”

An all-around athlete in high school, Wright’s weight had fluctuated like a roller coaster since his 20s. He had heard the message before — eat healthier and drop the pounds. But now he had a very specific motivation: staying alive for his wife and four children.

For guidance with exercise and nutrition, Wright enlisted the help of friends, including Jeff and Becca Cisneros, owners of Sparta Combat League and Spartan Labs, who Wright works for as the vice president of their Colorado mixed martial arts company. Cliff and Kelly Shuffler put his workouts together and Jay and Terha Watterson of Loveland Athletic Club, along with the support of his family, have helped him faithfully maintain a dedicated workout regimen — two hours of early morning cardio and weight training, five days a week — and a healthy diet consisting mostly of vegetables, lean protein and low-fat options.

Having recently turned 50, Wright also has systematically reduced his medications and the number of required doctor visits. And in April 2015, he underwent a procedure called a cardioversion, basically an electrical shock, to reverse his atrial fibrillation. So far, the procedure has been a success.

Rob Wright works out at Loveland Athletic Club. A stern warning from Wright’s doctor four years ago got him to the gym and back to taking care of himself, which probably saved his life. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

“Even after a cardioversion, an arrhythmia can come back if a person is still overweight and not taking care of themselves,” Dow said. “So I made a deal with Rob that until he was thinned down and taking care of himself, I wasn’t going to entertain the option of trying to eliminate his arrhythmia.”

Better physical health (Wright has lost more than 165 pounds) has brought new business opportunities as well as a noticeable improvement in his emotional and spiritual well-being, Wright said.

“When your body gets right, it’s amazing how your mind improves as well. I’m very blessed and very humbled by where this three-year journey has taken me,” Wright said. “The health care I’ve received has just been phenomenal.”

Patients with advanced heart disease or those who’ve had specialized cardiac or vascular procedures performed at the Heart Center are often sent to consult with exercise or nutrition specialists to help get them started, Dow said. He typically recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day, anything from a treadmill to circuit training, and refers many of his patients to their local gym to meet with a certified personal trainer.

The cardiologist knows how challenging it can be to make hard lifestyle changes. That’s why he considers Wright in the minority.

“A lot of people expect me to have a pill that will take away their symptoms,” Dow said. “But Rob really took my advice to heart. Rather than getting angry, he’s really shifted things toward a positive outlook, future and prognosis. Rob is a poster child for lifestyle interventions for treatment of heart problems.”

About the author

Andrew Kensley has worked as a freelance writer in northern Colorado since 2009. In addition to his work for UCHealth, he is a regular contributor of essays, features and the News & Notes section of Fort Collins Magazine. He also has written numerous cover profiles, Q&As, and travel and wellness features for Mind+Body Magazine and the Fort Collins Coloradoan, the newspaper in which his parenting column, “Wee Wisdom,” ran Sundays from 2009 to 2013. His travel essays have been featured in the family travel website,  

Andrew published his first novel, “Seeking Blue,” in 2014, and his short fiction has appeared in the University of Wyoming’s literary journal, Owen Wister Review.

Andrew was born in Montreal, Canada, and has lived in Fort Collins since 2004. A 1996 graduate of McGill University, he continues to work as a physical therapist, helping people regain their mobility, confidence, and functional abilities. He speaks French, Spanish and Hebrew, and loves to travel.