When a Waunakee couple headed to University Hospital in Madison last January, they had anticipated being together while they learned why the husband had chest discomfort and difficulty breathing.
But when Kari Heller dropped Mike off at the emergency room and went to park the car, she didn’t know COVID-19 protocols would prevent her from remaining by his side.
Sitting at home alone later that day, Kari got this text from Mike: “I had a heart attack.”
As it wasn’t the big, dramatic Hollywood-style heart attack they had come to know from movies, it was hard to believe—but the "weird" uncomfortable feeling in his chest and an inability to take a full breath had been one.
“We didn’t even say goodbye to each other, we didn't know,” Mike said. “Kari couldn’t be there to hold my hand. It was a crappy scenario that played out in real time. We got the desired outcome, but it wasn't guaranteed, so we’re blessed.”
Throughout the multi-day process which saw Mike go to the cardiac catheterization laboratory or "cath lab," get three stents implanted, and spend two days in intensive care, their doctor remained calm, engaged and caring and never hurried them off of speakerphone despite Kari asking many questions, they said.
Impressed and feeling blessed by the care they received from Dr. Dustin Hillerson and the staff at UW Hospital, the Hellers decided they wanted to give back to the UW Department of Medicine through the University of Wisconsin Foundation.
The Hellers are the owners of Red and White Wine Bar at 331 E. Main St. in Waunakee, where last year they held a fundraising night that raised $11,000 for UW’s Division of Cardiovascular Medicine for research.
This year, they have set their sights even higher, and hope to raise $25,000 through a variety of fundraising efforts.
Foremost is the Heart Night Gala set for 7 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, Feb. 11. That event will take place at the wine bar and for $50 per person will include hors d'oeuvres and live music. It will be a formal or fancy attire event, in heated tents outside the bar.
To register for the gala, email email@example.com
There will be an online silent auction with items from over 150 businesses.
As Mike is a weekday sports talk radio show host (1070AM/97.3FM), he has various connections to professional athletes, and so among the items are a Wisconsin Badgers helmet signed by Luke Fickell, a basketball signed by Milwaukee Bucks player Khris Middleton and a Joe Thomas Green Bay Packers jersey.
An automated external defibrillator (AED) will also be a part of the silent auction, as well as a bourbon collection.
The auction will go live online and be open for bidding a week before the event, starting Feb. 4. Anyone may bid, and attendance is not required at the gala.
There will also be door prizes which can be won through a raffle, for which tickets will go on sale Feb. 1.
People may also donate directly to the cause online at give.wiscmedicine.org/fundraiser/4226523
Kari has been planning the event for the past nine months.
They hope that the “mind blowing” research being done at UW could lead to transformative tools in the future, noting that it’s only been since 1986 that coronary artery stents have been implanted in humans.
They also said a $25,000 donation could end up becoming much more as it could be used to help fund a grant writer.
At 59 years old, Heller said he didn’t expect to face such a significant health scare, but grateful for the care he got, he wanted to do more than just pay his bill.
He has been using his radio show as a platform to speak to other men about the importance of heart health, and also not ignoring symptoms hoping they will just go away. Heller’s discomfort lasted around 48 hours before he decided it was time to get it checked out.
“I have said multiple times, your heart attack is not always going to be one that knocks you on the ground,” he said. “Men are notorious for saying, ‘I’m fine, just let me sit here,’ and I kind of did that. Some of my listeners are tough guys and former athletes who don't believe it's going to happen to them,” Heller said.
A history of heart attacks doesn’t always run in families, nor do they only impact people with other comorbidities, he said. The only person in his family who had had a heart attack was his mother, but she was a smoker and overweight. Mike said as a nonsmoker who exercises regularly and runs marathons, he didn’t fit the stereotypical profile for someone at risk of a heart attack.
In the year since, the Hellers have been touched by the outpouring of personal stories by others in the community who’ve been impacted by heart attacks, such as Kari’s hairstylist’s father who died from one.
The heart attack has also transformed the Hellers into “yes people” who try to say yes to everything friends or family invite them to, and to live more in the now.
“We are going to live our lives rather than plan to live our lives,” Mike said.