After scare, Aaland breathing easier To help medical bills from heart surgery, community run in his name

Shelly, Otto, and Chris Aaland have dealt with some family health problems recently. The latest started when Chris Aaland began waking up with a racing heart that he first attributed to stress. It turned out to be far more serious. Enlargephoto

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Shelly, Otto, and Chris Aaland have dealt with some family health problems recently. The latest started when Chris Aaland began waking up with a racing heart that he first attributed to stress. It turned out to be far more serious.

Chris Aaland thought it was a breathing issue. But the family doctor didn’t pull the stethoscope off his chest and prescribe an inhaler.

Instead, 48 hours after a fairly casual office visit, Aaland was on his way via helicopter to Presbyterian Heart Center in Albuquerque for life-saving heart surgery. Not to spoil the suspense, but, eight weeks later, Aaland, who has served Fort Lewis College athletics longer than anyone in the department, is doing just fine physically and mentally.

Financially, however, the Aaland family – Chris, his wife, Shelly, and their son, 5-year-old Otto – took a hit. So to help out, the organizers of the Community Cares 5K have designated the Aalands as this year’s beneficiary.

Saturday’s fourth annual event begins at 10 a.m. at the Durango Community Recreation Center. The fun run/walk is sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Durango and Durango Parks and Recreation.

It has been a trying stretch for the FLC sweethearts. Chris (1991 FLC grad and current assistant director of athletics for communications) and Shelly (1999 FLC grad and current head volleyball coach) were married in 2002. Their son Otto was born in 2007 and their son Gus in 2011. On Nov. 25, 2011, 5½-month-old Gus died at a Denver hospital of a sudden illness. Otto stayed in Durango during the ordeal.

“We couldn’t get back to Durango soon enough,” Chris said. First, they needed to explain to him about his brother. But mostly, “He was the medicine that Shelly and I needed.”

Almost exactly a year after Gus’s death, Chris began waking up with his heart racing and his breathing heavy. He chalked it up to anxiety surrounding the anniversary. But the symptoms didn’t go away.

The weekend of Dec. 8-9 was a particularly bad one physically. Among other duties, Chris keeps statistics at FLC sporting events, and that weekend marked FLC basketball’s first homestand. (Chris, like a true sports fan, recalls dates by associating them with sporting events. His last weekend at the hospital, he pointed out later in the interview, coincided with the Denver Broncos’ game vs. the Cleveland Browns.) So on Monday he visited the family doctor.

“I thought I was going to go in, and they were going to check my lungs out,” he said.

“That was a real shock ... having him say I had the lung capacity of a 74-year-old, and there’s a murmur in there, and it sounds like something’s really wrong.”

A visit the next day to a Mercy Regional Medical Center cardiologist revealed an aortic aneurysm. The malfunctioning aorta was causing fluid to pool in his lung. Thus, the breathing trouble. Aaland was flown immediately to Albuquerque.

Five days later, Monday, Dec. 17, surgeons opened his rib cage, lifted out the heart, repaired the aneurysm and put in an artificial valve.

After the three- to four-hour operation, “I felt almost instant relief,” Aaland said. “I felt like I could breathe like I was a 15-year-old.”

The Community Cares 5K is the brainchild of Ken Flint, former cross country coach and athletics department business manager at Fort Lewis. Flint and Aaland once shared an office at FLC and have known each other since 2000. Flint and other First Baptist Church members agreed that one of FLC athletics’ biggest boosters was worthy of some love.

“He’s done so much in the community,” Flint said of Aaland, mentioning also his work as DJ for KDUR-FM and the local music-themed column he writes for The Durango Telegraph. “He’s a community member who’s going through a tough time, and we wanted to help.”

The Aalands have health insurance, but not all expenses were covered – the helicopter flight, for one.

“We assumed some pretty steep out-of-network charges,” Aaland said.

Aaland’s undying love for FLC and sports is unimpeachable. He began as sports information director about the same time he graduated in 1991. In 2001, he left the athletics department to become director of communications and publications, and in 2006, was named director of alumni relations. Even when he left the department, Aaland kept his hand in athletics, keeping statistics at games. He returned to athletics in 2010 to take his current post.

“He’s a tremendously vital asset to Fort Lewis athletics,” Duane Smith, longtime fan, professor, and member of the FLC Athletic Hall of Fame, said of Aaland. “With his wife, they are an amazing team.”

Shelly Aaland has long FLC tenure, too. Then Shelly Harshberger, she played volleyball and was FLC’s most valuable player in 1998. She has been head volleyball coach since 2003.

The seriousness of Chris’s condition really didn’t hit the Aalands until the crisis was over. But if Chris had let his condition go much longer, the outcome could have easily been different.

“If you have trouble breathing for more than a short period of time, don’t screw around with it,” he advised. “Go see your family doctor.

“(Age) 44 is nowhere near where I want the game to be over, especially with a 5-year-old who I want to do things like climb Engineer (Mountain) with.”

He’s made a few lifestyle changes, such as diet, and for the foreseeable future will take the blood thinner Coumadin. But his favored pastimes of fly-fishing and bird hunting are doable, and he can still be that dad who plays basketball with his kid in the driveway.

“All the things I thought I couldn’t do are back on,” Aaland said. “I was starting to doubt some of those things would happen.” John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.