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Finding a Hole in the Heart Changes Richard Wheaton's Life

Wheaton in his Oklahoma
firefighter's uniform.

A road trip to see the Royals turned into a lifechanging experience for the Wheaton family, but Richard Wheaton created the excitement and not the boys in blue. While visiting Kansas City from Broken Arrow, Okla., in July 2005, Richard suffered a stroke at the young age of 46. "I tried to get up in my hotel room, and I couldn't stand and felt dizzy," remembers Richard in disbelief. Assisted by his family, he arrived at North Kansas City Hospital.

There, cardiologists surprised him with the news that he'd been living with a potentially fatal heart condition since birth. Like approximately 25 percent of adults in America, Richard lived with patent foramen ovale (PFO), a type of atrial septal defect, or hole in the heart.

Atrial septal defects define a class of several congenital heart diseases involving the inter-atrial septum or tissue that separates the right and left upper chambers of the heart. Without the septum or if there is a defect, it's possible for blood to travel from the left side of the heart to the right side and vice versa, creating a life-threatening problem. The first clue is usually a mini stroke or, in Richard's case, a full-blown stroke that interrupted blood flow to his brain. He has since recovered from the stroke.

Always athletic and in good shape through his job as a firefighter, Richard never knew he was a walking time bomb. "I feel very fortunate my stroke happened close to a hospital," he says. "If I was camping or fighting a fire, this could have turned out much differently."

Lucky for Richard, North Kansas City Hospital Cardiologist Martin O'Laughlin, MD, is an expert at repairing atrial septal defects.

Dr. O'Laughlin describes Richard's particular type of defect as involving the foramen ovale, a gap in two overlapping sections of the septum, or wall, that divides the heart's upper chambers. He explains that the gap occurs naturally in fetuses, but usually fuses shut soon after birth. When it remains open, or "patent," mini strokes and strokes can occur with the condition called patent foramen ovale. Health experts estimate that each year 100,000 PFO patients suffer some form of stroke.

Individuals diagnosed with PFO are typically treated with anticoagulant or antiplatelet drugs, like Coumadin®, to keep blood thin and minimize clotting. Closure of the defect became the only option for Richard as blood thinners were prohibited in his work as a firefighter.

Instead of remaining in Oklahoma, Richard returned to North Kansas City Hospital. He chose the Hospital because of the expert skill of Dr. O'Laughlin and the Hospital's reputation. There he underwent a catheterization procedure to close the defect. "After my initial treatment at the Hospital in July, the physicians and staff were very skilled and demonstrated a level of excellence that I wanted for my procedure," says Richard.

In November 2005, Richard and his wife traveled from Oklahoma to the Hospital where Dr. O'Laughlin and Cardiologist Douglas Bogart, MD, closed the hole in his heart.

For individuals like Richard, the PFO procedure is more patient-friendly now than 10 years ago when the surgery required opening the chest. North Kansas City Hospital is one of the few Kansas City area hospitals providing a less invasive way to seal the hole. Dr. O'Laughlin implants the closure device via a catheter inserted in the groin. Two wire mesh discs, filled with polyester fabric, "clasp" the septum shut. Most recipients leave the hospital within 24 hours.

"This new way to close a PFO is much easier and less invasive for the patient. It shortens the length of the procedure and decreases hospitalization and recovery which means the patient returns to normal activities much sooner," says Dr. O'Laughlin.

Richard is glad the surgery is his answer to returning to his love of firefighting, a job where he says, "I want to return to helping people."

Richard and his wife, Geri, are thankful to the Hospital's physicians and staff for identifying his problem and providing the answer. "I was extremely pleased with my care. It was absolutely wonderful," says Richard. "We feel so blessed that this happened close to North Kansas City Hospital," adds Geri. "We were in the right place."

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  • Finding a Hole in the Heart Changes Richard Wheaton's Life