Thomas’ Story: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Thursday, November 10, 2016 9:41 AM

As a successful chef, Thomas Winklebleck was used to a fast-paced everyday life, but when he began noticing that his body was struggling to keep up, he knew he needed help. This eventually led him to Dr. Robert Gordon and Dr. Hyde Russell, along with the team within the NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute, who worked to find innovative solutions for Thomas' condition:

How long were you battling with heart problems?
Since around 2010-2011, I was experiencing some discomfort and shortness of breath. I was seeing a cardiologist at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, and we noticed a small leak with my valve and some signs of the cardiac myopathy. At that time, I was working with the Nashville Predators Hockey Team, and we decided to try to manage the situation with medications and monitor my progress.

As a chef, you spend a lot of time in stressful and very hot environments – how often did you find yourself struggling to manage your symptoms during the workday?
By 2014, I was really struggling with running the day-to-day operations at Bridgestone Arena. I found myself unable to get around the Arena in a timely fashion, taking the elevators instead of stairs, hitching rides on carts when possible. It was at this time that I decided to transfer to a less stressful situation in the kitchen where I could still be creative and make a good living for myself and my family.

Your quick decision-making really saved your life – what made you decide to seek help at NorthShore?
When the chest pains were becoming increasingly frequent and my shortness of breath made me fearful. I went to see my general practitioner, Dr. Jack Morgan at Skokie NorthShore. His intern referred me to Dr. Robert Gordon at Evanston NorthShore, where after testing and a visit with Dr. Hyde Russell, it was decided that I needed to schedule surgery.

What differences did you notice after your heart surgery? How did the ECMO device help your recovery?
It was explained to me that my heart and lungs were having trouble recovering, and I had a tremendous amount of fluid building up. It was decided to use the ECMO to give my heart and lungs a chance to rest and to get rid of this alarming amount of fluid. It worked! As to how I feel? I feel 10 years younger. I have no chest pain and I am able to do an hour a day on the treadmill with ease. I use a FitBit and have no problems getting in 10-15,000 steps a day at work on campus. It’s truly a miracle.

What stuck out to you most about Dr. Hyde Russell and the cardiology care team?
The passion and dedication given to me as a patient and a human-being. I have never received that kind of attention in my entire life. I frequently tell this story when talking to people about my experience: It was very early in my recovery when I was doing physical therapy. I was still going through some post-operative depression thinking my life would never be the same. I had a follow-up appointment with my nurse practitioner Debbie Jefferson, and she was kind and asked how I was feeling. I told her about my weakness and how PT was difficult and challenging. When I mentioned that “I wasn’t looking forward to spending the rest of my life tired and in fear of my heart”, she smiled and looked deep into my eyes and said, “Thomas, in 6-8 months from now when your strength and mobility return, you will have a new life. This is a second chance! Through exercise and diet, you can live and really enjoy life.” It was at that moment that I got excited about the future, and the depression melted away. Since then, I have truly been living!

What activities are you able to enjoy now that your symptoms are better under control?
Walking, working, cooking, spending quality time with my family, being able to run around chasing my 10 year old! The list is endless; I really do feel 10 years younger. I started going to church every Sunday, and when I pray, the staff at Northshore and Drs. Russell and Gordon are at the top of that list!

People often ignore their nagging aches and pains – what would you say to those who are unsure about getting their symptoms checked out?
As a chef, we never show weakness. My ego was my biggest enemy. In May 2014, I participated in executing the 140th Running of the Kentucky Derby. It was a weeklong event. We feed as many people as the Super Bowl twice over. I was in a lot of pain; it was the hardest task of my life, and after the week was over, I was bedridden for 5 days. I never want to experience that again. I prioritize now; Me FirstJ, my family, work and my craft as a chef. It has bought me everything great in my life. I may not be perfect, but I am great at this.