A Retired Veterinarian Gains a New Lease on Life after Lifesaving Heart Surgery at Memorial Hermann

By Alexandra Becker

For 50 years, Dr. Alfred Wehner worked as a trusted veterinarian in Beaumont, TX, caring for beloved dogs, cats and other small animals. At age 71, he decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of running a ranch, and in 2019, he retired to his 250-acre property in Woodville, approximately 60 miles north of where his animal clinic had been.

Just as he was ready to begin this next chapter, however, Wehner’s health started failing. His heart, which had needed an aortic valve replacement ten years prior, went into a-fibrillation, and his cardiologist performed an ablation to correct its irregular rhythm. But his problems didn’t end there. Wehner was having trouble breathing—he would need to rest two to three times just to climb the steps of his two-story home—and both of his legs grew puffy and swollen. After bloodwork and a host of tests, he was diagnosed with anemia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“I accepted that diagnosis because I had been a heavy smoker in my youth, so it made sense,” Wehner recalled. “I was also born and raised in Port Arthur, and I spent my childhood breathing that refinery air.”

Wehner’s pulmonologist put him on a medication regimen for COPD, but his breathing problems continued to grow worse, and he also developed frequent nosebleeds. Then, one night in early January 2021, he checked himself into an emergency room in Beaumont.

“I had to sit up in order to breathe—every time I tried to lie down it felt like I was suffocating,” Wehner recalled.

His cardiologist met him there in the ER, where they discovered that the right side of his heart was dangerously enlarged.

“I remember my cardiologist saying to me, ‘To be honest with you, I have no idea why your heart is enlarged, but I know somebody who can figure it out,’” Wehner said.

And so, right there, late into the evening, his cardiologist called Dr. Richard Smalling, professor and Director of Interventional Cardiovascular Medicine in the Division of Cardiology, and the James D. Woods Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

By 3 a.m., Wehner was in an ambulance on his way to Houston, and just a few short hours later, Dr. Smalling walked into his hospital room at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center, where he is an attending physician.

“He went over my history and he said, ‘We’ll get to the bottom of it, no matter what,’” Wehner recalled.

After that, Wehner underwent extensive diagnostic testing. Ultimately, an echocardiogram revealed that he had an atrial septal defect, which is a hole between the upper chambers of the heart.

“An atrial septal defect allows oxygen-rich blood to leak into the oxygen-poor blood chambers of the heart, which can create many of the problems Dr. Wehner was experiencing, and it was resulting in right-sided heart failure,” Dr. Smalling explained. “While these are typically present at birth, we do not always know why they can take decades to become problematic. Thankfully, we can perform a minimally invasive procedure to close the opening so that the heart can resume its normal function.”

Dr. Smalling scheduled the surgery for January 19, and just a few days later, Wehner was already breathing easier.

“I could tell a difference almost immediately,” Wehner said. “Now, I feel like a million bucks. I had resigned myself to having COPD—I was like a country boy with a toothache who just had to get used to it—and I really thought that was as good as I was going to be. But now, I can jog upstairs if I want to. I can do anything.”

At Dr. Smalling’s urging, Wehner is also now riding his bicycle for at least 30 minutes a day to maintain his heart health. He has lost approximately 40 pounds, and he is no longer on any medication for COPD.

It wasn’t until much later that he learned just how close he was to dying in the emergency room that evening in January.  

“My cardiologist had apparently told the doctors that if I didn’t make it that night to not call my wife, but to call him instead and that he would call her personally,” Wehner said. “I was too sick to realize it at the time, but I was really close to celestial bells. Now, I feel great, and with my heart issue corrected, I truly have a new lease on life.”

Wehner said he will be forever grateful for Dr. Smalling and his team at Memorial Hermann.

“It was extremely depressing to think that you worked your whole life and were about to retire but suddenly couldn’t enjoy it,” Wehner said. “I just have the utmost respect for Dr. Smalling, the nurses, his staff—the entire hospital. They were all phenomenal, and they saved my life.”

Comments

  1. Praise the Lord for Dr Webber’s recovery, all his medical team and caregivers. My favorite vet and one of my favorite people. Congratulations on retirement and too a long healthy life of it 🎈🙏🏻

  2. Doc was our veterinarian for almost 40 years. Even after moving away from Beaumont we still made the drive to Calder animal clinic because of his expertise, and amazingly friendly demeanor. He shared stories with us about traipsing through the port Arthur neighborhood with my older brother, Buddy, when they were little. So happy that the skilled doctors identified the problem and took lifesaving measures for our favorite veterinarian ! Happy Retirement Doc and speedy recovery!

  3. Dr. Wehner is an amazing man and he was an amazing vet! I am so thankful he is now able to fully enjoy his well deserved retirement! He always took such wonderful care of our pups.

  4. Dr Smalling saved the life of my sweet husband, Eddie Schroeder, a retired attorney from Beaumont, many times over. Dr Smalling has a God given skill and is never tiring in saving lives. Just as Dr Werner was our vet for 40 years saving our beloved fur babies. What a wonderful world these two are making out there, each with their own loving souls.❤️🙏🏻

  5. What a story and miracle. Dr. Wehner took care of our families pets from the time I was in high school until he retired. The selfish me wishes he was still our veterinarian, the nice me is glad he gets to enjoy his well deserved retirement. Thanks for giving Doc a new lease on life.

  6. To Dr. Smalling and Staff,
    Thank you for finding the solution to his heart problem. This man is literally like a 2nd Daddy to me. My family has gone to Calder Animal Clinic for well over 30 years and he would exhaust all options in caring for each of our 4 legged family members. I think all of Beaumont was sad when he told us he was retiring . There will never be another Vet with his compassion for animals . He is amazing and deserves to relax now on his farm and be healthy . He has a heart the size of Texas .

  7. I have never had the privilege of meeting Dr Smalling. But, Dr Al Wehner has been a great friend and awesome very caring veterinarian for years. A great man deserves a quality retirement. I have had the honor to be married to Dr. Wehner’s Beaumont Cardiologist, Dr Leldon Sweet, for 42 years. I will always maintain an immense respect for all in the healthcare profession 🫀

  8. Our whole family has loved Dr. Wehner as long as I can remember. Since he had a cabin on the Sabine River inDeweyville. Selfishly hated to see him retire but no one deserves it more. Good luck to you Doc!👍🙏🏻💕

  9. Al was my vet from the mid 70s until he retired. I worked for the pediatrician that took care of his son. I live in rural Mississippi now with horses and my dogs. There will never be another vet that can measure up to him. So glad he has a new lease on life. He and Gwen deserve it.

  10. Oh wow! Of course he had an enlarged heart in the natural because he always had the biggest heart taking care of my pets since I was 17 (yes that has been a very long time)! I m so glad to hear this!! I had to call the vet this morning this morning since one of my furbabies is not well, I was thinking I wish Doc was still there. He is and has been such a blessing to countless furbabies! Thank you for taking the time to find out what was wrong, which is what Al did for years! Blessings!

  11. Good for you, Dr. Smalling and staff. Doc deserves to have good doctors like you. Thanks for helping him, and Doc Wehner, thanks for you helping my cats!

  12. Thank you so much for helping Dr. Wehner….he is such a sweet, gentle, caring man. We still miss him as our vet but so happy he gets to enjoy retirement now. He deserves it after working so hard for years.

  13. Wow! Such good news. Knowing that he had trouble for a while , I pretty sure there were many people ,including myself, praying that he would get the help that he needed to get well. Prayers answered. Good luck and God bless. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  14. So glad to hear Dr Wehner is able to enjoy a retirement. He was vet to our pets since 1990, a gentle caring man.

  15. Dr. Smalling & Staff,
    There are so many people that are so thankful for the life saving work that you performed on Dr. Wehner. He is a treasure to our community and just a wonderful light in the world. Thank you for taking the time to get to the bottom of his issues and to not leave any stone unturned until you were able to repair the damage to his heart.
    Sending gratitude and strength to you as you continue your work.

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