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.”