A Restless Heart Among The Stars

From a wide-ranging parks system to observatories, science centers, and planetariums interspersed amongst the rolling mountains and alongside its winding rivers, Western Pennsylvania is home to some serious stargazing opportunities.

For Ted Wolsko, 81, of Peters Township, it wasn’t the blackout shadow of an eclipse or the hot-blue burning of Orion’s Belt that took his gaze upward.

It was the planes that took his breath away.

“We lived really close to the Allegheny County Airport. My dad would take me to watch and I just fell in love a little bit more with each takeoff and landing,” he says. “That’s where my fascination with space began…I could stand there and watch for hours.”

Ted spent his childhood daydreaming about anything and everything to do with airplanes and the stars they chased—and every spare minute gazing.

“A friend in the neighborhood’s dad was a civil engineer and he had some great ‘big boy toys.’ I had to ask, and he let me borrow his Transit instrument—we set it up right there in the front yard,” he says. “I vividly remember the moon and the planets.”

In his actual dreams, Ted saw Air Force pilots and astronauts—though he doubted whether he could ever sit still long enough to be one.

The “real world” served to split the difference for him.

“How lucky was I that my very first job was at the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory working on Project NERVA and the man-to-Mars mission,” he says and asks at the same time. “I even got to go out to the Jackass Flats in Nevada for a few of the tests, which was the greatest thing ever! I thought I’d died and went to Heaven.”

For nearly 60 years, Ted lived a very rich life—in August, he’ll be celebrating six decades of marriage with his wife, Connie. They raised three children as Ted’s career spanned from the space program to programming and even human resources consulting, ultimately achieving the level of Vice President at KCS Computer Services.

“I really love working with people and helping them build their careers,” he says. “Seeing someone blossom knowing that you helped them grow into what they always wanted to be, that’s really special.”

Though Ted officially retired in 2001, he remained active in the community in part-time roles, including stints at the Peters Township Recreation Center and Clayton Engineering in Bridgeville.

As the years passed, Ted could feel himself really slowing down.

“I just chalked it up to getting older, and, like a lot of men my age, I ignored some things I was experiencing when it came to my health,” he says. “I wouldn’t admit that I had a problem, but Connie could see it—even though I would try to hide it from her. It got to the point where I had to sit down for 10 minutes after walking to the mailbox, and she knew I had to do something about it.”

Ted’s disease, aortic stenosis, occurs when the valve between the lower left heart chamber and the body’s main artery (aorta) narrows, restricting its ability to open all the way. A progressive ailment, severe cases of aortic stenosis—and the resulting reduction or blockage of blood flow—can lead to death without treatment.

Andy C. Kiser, MD, Physician-in-Chief of Cardiovascular Services at St. Clair Health, had a clear message for Ted—one that extends to anyone who might be experiencing symptoms associated with heart disease.

“Don’t ignore the signs,” he says. “If you’re feeling specific shortness of breath or discomfort or you just don’t have the same energy anymore, the time to act is now. Whether it’s aortic stenosis or atrial fibrillation (AFIB), if the heart valve’s involved, we have world-class medical advancements that can make a world of difference—with minimal interruption to your life.”

After an echocardiogram confirmed the need for additional testing, Dr. Kiser and his multidisciplinary St. Clair Valve Clinic team evaluated Ted further.

“One of the great things about St. Clair Health is that everything you need is right under one roof—your cardiothoracic surgeons, interventional cardiologists, anesthesiologists, and radiologists are all working together in the same place,” Dr. Kiser says. “And we have a clinical liaison that helps you navigate every step of the way.”

In short order they presented Ted with the transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) recommendation.

“We use a catheter to replace your diseased heart valve with a new, man-made valve through a very small incision in your leg,” Dr. Kiser says. “And the benefits are tremendous. You want to be home, back to the things you love to do with the people you love to do them with as soon as possible, and that’s what the TAVR is designed to deliver.”

On September 29, 2020, that’s exactly what Ted experienced.

“It was amazing—and immediate. I felt normal again and almost couldn’t believe it—I could breathe again,” he says. “And I went home the very next day!”

Ted reaches out to Jamie Roland, Nurse Navigator Cardiovascular, who helps the whole TAVR team celebrate each year on the anniversary of what Ted describes as his second chance at life.

“There are so many extremely dedicated and caring people at St. Clair who do an unbelievable job,” he says. “And I’m extremely grateful of everything they’ve done for me and my family.”

For Dr. Kiser, personalizing patient care is the key to humanizing healthcare.

“We make it our mission to understand what’s important to you, so we know exactly what you want to get back to, because at St. Clair Health, you’re not a number,” he says. “With Ted, we weren’t here to show him the stars—we were here to make him the star of the show.”

In April of 2021, Dr. Kiser and St. Clair Health upped the ante by delivering a Pittsburgh breakthrough: the city’s first same-day discharge of a TAVR patient.

“Every single day is valuable to every single patient,” Dr. Kiser says. “That’s why we’re not just treating your heart valve—we’re taking a look at your whole life and doing everything we can to maximize your time spent living it the way you deserve to.”

Expert care from people who care.

Ted was so enthused after his TAVR that he asked Dr. Kiser what he could possibly do to thank him and the team for their efforts.

“I offered to cut his grass—and I was totally serious!” Ted says. “That’s how good I felt.”

The proud octogenarian is still sending out resumes in between charting stars, pausing only to reflect back on his younger days as a student-pilot.

“One of my father’s biggest thrills was the day I flew over from Zelienople to meet him at the very first place I begged him watch the planes. I taxied in and tied down and we grabbed a cup of coffee…I’ll never forget the smile on his face,” Ted says.

“Because of St. Clair, I’m still looking up.”

To learn more about TAVR at St. Clair Health, click here.