In 1963, Tom Wheeler was 17 years old and the quarterback for Duluth East High School’s football team. That season he missed a few games due to being sick and a doctor heard something that didn’t sound right with Wheeler’s heart.
The doctor told Wheeler to visit Mayo Clinic after the football season, and that’s when he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Wheeler said at first he was told to refrain from sports.
“I was just crushed,” he said. “We had a very good (hockey) team and I was looking forward to the season, and this was just dropped on me like a bomb.”
Wheeler said the doctors didn’t know if it was a congenital heart defect, but faced with the possibility, they initially put restrictions on his sports activities. But after a couple of weeks of additional discussion and testing, Wheeler was given the go-ahead to resume playing sports.
He continued to play football, hockey and tennis throughout high school until he graduated from East in 1964. After that, he played hockey for another four years at Hamilton College in New York, which wasn’t his first choice.
“I was a good student. I had wanted to go to Harvard or Dartmouth for college, but the thinking was that if I could play college hockey, which would have been up to the college, it was to go to a smaller school where the competition was less intense,” Wheeler said. “The irony was when I got there, the doctor gave me a green light to play, but we didn’t have three lines until my senior year.”
After college, Wheeler went on to play four years of hockey in Europe and didn’t have any symptoms until his last year there.
“I had shortness of breath, heart palpitations and irregular heartbeats,” Wheeler said. “So I essentially retired.”
Wheeler, 73, had his first open-heart surgery at the age of 61, and that was the first time he was diagnosed with congenital heart disease, which is any abnormality of the heart that has been present since birth. Wheeler has had his aortic valve replaced three times and now has a pacemaker. Since age 17, he’s had annual checkups.
When Wheeler read the News Tribune article about Jackson Pfister, a 15-year-old Esko football player who died last week due to congenital heart disease, he said it hit home for him.
“When you're 17, sports are sort of your life,” he said. “My sense is Jackson died doing what he loved, and being loved as he was he will live on in his family's memories and so on.”