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August 2008 Issue

Ken Tankersley, PhD, thanks cardiologist Neal Weintraub, MD, for treating his heart condition and ultimately giving him another lease on life.
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Cardiologist Helps UC Anthropologist Rebound From Intensive Care Unit to 'Intense' 30-Mile Bike Rides

By Katie Pence
Published August 2008

It’s not rare for Ken Tankersley, PhD, to spend his days climbing mountains and his nights sleeping in caves.

For the UC anthropologist, it’s all in a day’s work.

“I’m about to go out on another shoot for the Discovery Channel,” he says. “I’m always doing something out in the field.”

Tankersley is nationally known for his research with climate change and has made documentaries for not only the Discovery Channel but also the History Channel, National Geographic and PBS, among others.

“I’m very interested in how humans adapt to climate change,” says Tankersley. “The archaeological record dates back to more than 2 million years ago, and the Ohio Valley goes back to about 13,000 B.C. There have been many periods of global change, and each time, people have adapted and lived through them.”

Tankersley’s busy lifestyle and successful career were threatened a year ago when he was taken to the hospital with pulmonary edema—fluid in the lungs—and congestive heart failure.

The warning signs were strong months before, but Tankersley thought he only had the flu.

“I went to urgent care, and it seemed to clear up for awhile,” he says.

Over the next few months, Tankersley began to gain weight, and by June he was almost 90 pounds heavier.

“I just thought I was an old, fat guy with decreasing metabolism,” says the 53-year-old. “I just kept getting bigger.”

He says after returning home from yet another shoot, he knew something more serious had to be wrong with him.

“I was having a difficult time breathing,” he says, noting that he ended up in the University Hospital (UH) emergency room.

However, Tankersley still only thought it was a touch of pneumonia. At UH, tests showed evidence of fluid in the lungs, a weakened heart and a rapid heartbeat at up to 200 beats per minute.

“I was told if I left the hospital that night, I would possibly not live to see tomorrow,” he recounts. “I only had about 15 percent heart capacity.”

Tankersley was cared for by LeeAnn Coberly, MD, professor of medicine, who then referred him to Neal Weintraub, MD, director of the division of cardiovascular diseases at UC.

Tankersley suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy—a condition that leads to congestive heart failure. This condition is associated with severely slowed heart function and a poor prognosis, particularly if the cause cannot be determined. He was found to have a rapid, irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation.

With assistance from Alex Costea, MD, an electrophysiologist in the cardiovascular diseases division, the condition was controlled, and his weakened heart recovered dramatically.

“I started feeling better within the week,” Tankersley says. “I did everything Dr. Weintraub told me to do—no salt, no carbs besides whole grain bread, low amounts of sugar, no alcohol and regular exercise.

“Last summer, I was in intensive care. Now, I weigh 166 pounds, am regularly participating in 30-mile bike rides and am back to making my documentaries. I feel like I’m in my 20s, and I have Dr. Weintraub to thank.”

Weintraub says Tankersley’s story is one of great strength.

“When I first met Ken, he could barely walk in and out of clinic,” Weintraub says. “He required an intensive medication regimen with frequent follow-up checks and blood testing. In addition, major lifestyle changes were necessary. With perseverance on his part, not only did his symptoms totally resolve, but also his overall health and fitness level are the best they have been since early adulthood.

“He is an inspiration to the many patients who face serious cardiac problems,” Weintraub continues. “All too often, our patients react with a sense of helplessness and depression. Ken took things into his own hands, and look where he is now!”

Tankersley may be a heart patient survivor, but he is also a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with lymphoma and testicular cancer in 1987, but once again came out shining.

“I’m a fighter,” he says. “I’m not ready to give up.”

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