Three years ago, Tacoma native Jon Wheeler was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
He got the news at age 30, on the same day his second child was born.
A year later, Wheeler was admitted to the hospital where he stayed for the next five months. He lost almost half of his total body weight, and all of his previous athletic ability. He could not push himself out of bed. He could not walk, or balance on his own.
His near vegetative state forced his family to consider taking him off life support on several occasions.
Over time his health slowly began to improve. After about four months in the hospital, Wheeler was healthy enough to receive an artificial heart pump, which helped him regain some of his strength and get back on his feet.
In September 2010, he was joined by his family and friends in the Pierce County Heart Walk where he walked the full four-mile loop.
This year, Wheeler will join the walk again, supported this time by a brand new heart, which he received in a transplant last December.
“If you had a heart transplant 10 or 15 years ago, your life expectancy would be another 10 to 20 years. Now that number has jumped up to 30 to 35 years,” said the now 33-year -old husband and father of two. “With modern medicines, and new less-invasive techniques, it’s extending your life.”
Advances in research and medical techniques are what events like the annual Pierce County Heart Walk help pay for.
The Heart Walk has helped the American Heart Association invest $6.7 million into current heart disease and stroke research grants in Washington, according to Heart Walk director Julia Falvey.
“Heart disease is the number one killer for Americans. Stroke is number three. We’ve put a lot of our money to research programs, but now a big focus of ours is prevention… Let’s figure out how to change the way people think and how to prevent heart disease.”
For some people, heart disease is totally preventable. Eating properly, lowering cholesterol and exercising all help maintain a healthy heart, which can help deter disease.
For others, heart disease has genetic roots.
For Wheeler, who never met his biological mother, it is unclear whether his diagnosis stemmed from family medical history or a virus he contracted. The young man was healthy, active and health conscious with good cholesterol levels. The last thing he expected was to be told his heart was failing at age 30.
“I was blown away when I was diagnosed with it. I knew nothing about it. I thought it was something only old people got. All I knew was I felt horrible, and it kept getting worse. It is scary,” he said. “Anyone can get it, young or old. And it doesn’t have to run in the family. You might not know anyone who has a heart problem now, but most likely someone in your lifetime, in your circle of friends, will be touched by it in one way, shape or form.”
This year’s Heart Walk takes place on Oct. 15, beginning at 7:30 a.m. at South 8th St. and Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma. Walkers can register the day of or in advance online, and participate in a two- or four-mile loop starting at 9 a.m. After the walk, a heart-centric festival includes health screenings and hands-on activities for adults and kids.
Since Wheeler’s participation in the Heart Walk last year, he has continued to volunteer with the American Heart Association, helping coordinate the 2011 event.
He said he had always participated in walks for disease research, and doing the Heart Walk last year was no different.
“Years ago I would do any walk I could possibly do – March of Dimes, Relay For Life, AIDS Walk,” he said. “When I did the Heart Walk last year, I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I just went to support anything that had to do with research and wellness of the heart.”
Wheeler said he shares his story and spreads the message of preventative health measures to keep others from falling to the killer disease.
“If people have the time, I hope they jump in and get involved no matter what the cause is. There’s always ways to get involved and to help people who are sick, or help promote preventative measures to keep them form getting sick, whether it be volunteering your time, or donating money – anything.”
Register your community or corporate team for the 2011 Pierce County Heart Walk at www.piercecountyheartwalk.org or call (253) 830-2142. Find out more about simple ways you can help prevent heart disease at mylifecheck.heart.org.