Writer // Janelle Morrison Photos // Courtesy of WTHR and the Stehr Family
The loyal viewers of WTHR’s Eyewitness News have probably seen updates on the 22-year veteran co- anchor, John Stehr, regarding his recovery from heart surgery this past July. Stehr was diagnosed with a slight aneurysm in his aorta nearly a decade ago. His doctors kept a close eye on it over the years until it was time to take preventative action.
The multiple Emmy award-winning anchor joined the WTHR news team of the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts in July 1995. He came to WTHR from CBS News in New York where he was a network correspondent. He reported on business and personal finance for “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Morning News”; he was also an anchor for the latter. What many might not know about Stehr is that he was a founding anchor of CNBC and anchored business news for CNBC’s “The Money Wheel.” He began his broadcasting career while attending Gannon University at WJET-AM Radio and WJET-TV in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Stehr and his wife, Amy, live on the northwest side and have three sons (two surviving) and three daughters. We sat down with Stehr at his home where he openly discussed his road to recovery and the lessons that this forced pause in his life has taught him.
“I’ve learned a lot about patience,” he said. “My wife will say that I’m very much a TypMe A personality, and patience isn’t something that always comes naturally to me. They gave the recovery plan to follow after leaving the hospital, and it says to walk for five minutes three times a day. Prior to, I’ve been walking seven to eight miles a day, getting up early in the morning to walk the trails and the town.
“Originally, I thought, ‘Five minutes? That’s nothing,’ but when I got back home, just walking the length of my driveway was really hard. Then after a couple of days, I could make it to my neighbor’s driveway and then the next driveway, and I eventually worked my way up to going all the way to the corner after a couple of weeks. That was a big day. Having the patience to work through that process has not come easily to me. So far, I’ve been able to have that patience, but it hasn’t been without a lot of work.”
Stehr first discovered his aneurysm several years ago when Amy was being treated for a different heart issue. Their cardiologist, Dr. Rich Fogel, became friendly after Stehr accompanied his wife to her appointments. He mentioned to Dr. Fogel that he had a stress test done a few years earlier at which point Dr. Fogel asked if he could review Stehr’s results. Appreciative of the gesture, Stehr submitted his results to the doctor who informed Stehr that he had seen something on the EKG that he wanted to investigate further.
“He said maybe we’ll have you come in for a heart scan and maybe an ultrasound, and that led to a CT Scan,” Stehr recalled. “He noticed a slight aneurysm in my aorta. He said it could just be the way I am, or it could be something that will grow and we should watch it. We started a schedule where I would come in every year, get a CT Scan and check on the status of the aneurysm. The first couple of years, there was no change. But five years in, it started to grow a little bit, and the next year it had grown a little bit more. In the last few years, it had accelerated its growth, so instead of checking it yearly, we were on a six-month schedule. It then reached a point that it became clear that something was going to have to be done, and it became a question of when.”
So how does one schedule something like heart surgery into a busy life and work schedule? We tend to keep calendars booked and put the demands of our personal and professional lives before our health. Sometimes, it is the very same drive that has earned us our success in life that causes us to ignore subtle signs that something is “off” and doesn’t feel quite right. Stehr was lucky to have caught his aneurysm early, and that undoubtedly saved his life. Not everyone is as fortunate.
Stehr is over a month into his recovery and has been spending a lot of quality time at home with his family and his best pal, Cash, the family Goldendoodle who sits at his owner’s side in a loving and watchful manner.
We asked Stehr what kind of impact the operation and recovery have had on him and on his thoughts of getting back to his normal routine. Would this redefine his definition of the “norm”?
“We’ll have to wait and see how much that ‘norm’ has changed,” he replied. “What I’ve been focused on is sticking with the plan that I’ve been given, taking the medication, taking the short walks and not lifting anything over five lbs. I’ve been taking naps during the day and find myself getting really fatigued a couple of times a day. I don’t have a choice but to rest, so we’ll see when I go back to work how I view it [my routine] differently. Hopefully, some of the patience that I’ve gained in the last month or so will carry over, and I’ll be more patient with people and more patient with the process.
“Clearly, I’ve been given a second chance, and I am grateful and blessed to have that second chance. I’ve thought a lot about how much I appreciate the life that I have and the wife and children that I have.”
Stehr would like the message to be that he didn’t wait and let his condition become an emergency situation. “We’ve been on top of this for a long time,” he stressed. “Part of the lesson here is that preventative medicine is the best medicine. If you know that you have something like this, you need to address it and stay on top of it. If an aneurysm breaks loose, it doesn’t matter how well your heart is pumping if there is nowhere for the blood to go. What I’ve been told is if that happens and you’re not actually in the hospital at the time, your odds of surviving are not very good.”
Amy mentioned that while her husband displayed no symptoms of his condition, there are times that you just have a sixth sense that something isn’t right, and you should trust your instinct and have it checked out, even if nothing is ever found. There is the peace of mind in knowing one way or the other.
“I just think that there’s this intuition that plays into it sometimes because [John] had zero symptoms, and it was just by chance that they found it,” she said. “There is just no symptom that goes along with it. In some cases, people are afraid of what it is that they are going to hear from their doctor, so they don’t go. That’s not going to help them or their family.”
“I’ve heard a lot of heartbreaking stories of people who lost their spouse at the age of 40, for instance,” Stehr said. “How they were there one day and gone the next. I’m hearing stories now from people who have measured with a 4.5 aneurysm a few years ago but haven’t gone back to their doctor. My response is go back to your doctor and get that checked. You need to stay on top of this. You can’t let it go. You have to take the advice that the medical professionals are giving you very seriously. I understand what it’s like to be traveling down the highway, and all of a sudden, you hit a stop sign. That can be very jarring. Eventually, you will get back up to speed, get back on the ramp and join the flow of traffic again.”