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

Wheaton in his Oklahoma
firefighter's uniform.

A road trip to see the Royals turned into a life-changing experience for the Wheaton family, but Richard Wheaton created the excitement and not the boys in blue. While visiting Kansas City from Broken Arrow, OK, in July 2005, Richard suffered a stroke at the age of 46. "I tried to get up in my hotel room, and I couldn't stand and felt dizzy," Richard remembers. 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% 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 interatrial 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.

Richard, a firefighter, was always athletic and in good shape and 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 has cardiologists who are experts at repairing atrial septal defects.

Richard's particular type of defect involves a gap in two overlapping sections of the septum, or wall, that divides the heart's upper chambers. The gap occurs naturally in fetuses, but usually fuses shut soon after birth. When it remains open, mini-strokes and strokes can occur. Health experts estimate that 100,000 PFO patients suffer some form of stroke each year.

Individuals diagnosed with PFO are typically treated with anticoagulant or antiplatelet drugs to keep blood thin and minimize clotting. However, closing the defect was the only option for Richard because blood thinners were prohibited in his work as a firefighter.

Instead of remaining in Oklahoma for the procedure, Richard returned to North Kansas City Hospital because the skill level of its cardiologists 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.

North Kansas City Hospital heart surgeons perform a less invasive way to seal the hole. The surgeon 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.

The less invasive technique shortens the length of the procedure and decreases hospitalization and recovery, which means the patient returns to normal activities much sooner. 

Richard is glad the surgery was 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