Dr. David Wheeler

Dr. David Wheeler, head of the Wyoming Neurologic Associates and recipient of the American Heart Association Physician of the Year, stands for a portrait inside the Wyoming Medical Center on March 26 in Casper. Wheeler is a high school dropout who became a Rhodes Scholar.

Many people in Wyoming talk about the need to improve our health care system. They acknowledge that it can be expensive for patients and employers, that it’s difficult for people in rural communities to access care, that many Wyomingites travel to other states for services.

Lawmakers and political leaders often offer little more than talk. Thankfully, there are individuals within the medical community who have stepped up to address the issues head on.

Dr. David Wheeler is one.

The American Heart Association recently named Wheeler, a Casper neurologist, national physician of the year. It’s a tremendous honor, and Wheeler deserves a hearty congratulations from our community.

His impact extends well beyond winning the award. Wheeler, a high school dropout turned Rhodes Scholar, is credited with playing a key role in bringing elite stroke care to Wyoming.

A stroke occurs when blood flow is cut off to part of the brain, causing brain cells to begin dying. It’s a major medical emergency that can potentially cause partial paralysis or even death. That makes every second count when it comes to implementing treatment.

However, that can prove difficult in rural parts of Wyoming, where there are fewer medical facilities and specialists. Wheeler began by communicating about the signs of a stroke, as well as what to do for someone experiencing a stroke. He hammered the phrase, “Time is brain,” meaning don’t wait, act fast if you see the symptoms and get to the hospital. This is important if the patient is one given to wait and see.

Wheeler began a telemedicine program focused on stroke care in 2007, bringing a specialist’s expertise to far-flung corners of the state. When grant money for the program ran out three years later, Wheeler continued the work by telephone. As communications technology improved, he restarted the program. It’s been adopted by Wyoming Medical Center and is now operating at hospitals in Douglas, Sheridan and Thermopolis. Gillette will be joining soon.

For Wyoming’s health care system to thrive, we need the ingenuity and determination of people like Dr. Wheeler. We live in a large state by geography, but also that nation’s least populated one, meaning we will always face difficulties related to access. Wheeler’s telestroke program is one step in overcoming those challenges.

The doctor has also shown a clear commitment to our state. As he told reporter Seth Klamann, Wheeler moved to a place where he knew his skills were needed.

“A big part of my motivation for becoming a doctor was really just about making the world better, improving the plight of my fellow man — that’s genuinely where this comes from for me,” he said. “The idea of going and doing something that’s desperately needed in a place where they haven’t really had that kind of care, that’s good for me morally, and intellectually the idea of going to place (where) what I wanted to do didn’t exist yet was exciting to me.”

Wheeler’s focus on bettering his community is an example for all of us. Wyoming’s health care problems are solvable, but doing so requires people determined to solve them. We hope our state’s leaders look to his example when addressing other medical challenges in Wyoming. Because Wheeler has shown that decisive, determined action – action that comes from a place of compassion – can make a difference.

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