On August 12, 2015, retired master sergeant Christopher A. Heim died in a motorcycle accident near his home in San Antonio, Texas. Chris was a graduate of MEDEX Seattle Class 41 from 2009. He entered the MEDEX program after 23 years in the U.S. Army as an 18D Special Forces medic.
News of Chris Heim’s death spread quickly among the MEDEX Northwest faculty. And while the reported death of anyone from the MEDEX family is unsettling, this one hit especially hard. Ky Haverkamp, PA-C, was Chris’ faculty advisor during his years at MEDEX, and recalls the following.
“Service men in uniform noticed him and immediately came to attention and greeted him with respect—and he wasn’t in uniform at that time. They were, I think, acknowledging his courage, dedication and service. Chris was full of life and purpose.”
“Service men in uniform noticed him and immediately came to attention and greeted him with respect—and he wasn’t in uniform at that time. They were, I think, acknowledging his courage, dedication and service.”
Over the course of his military service Chris had been in numerous countries—perhaps as many as 60—as well as remote areas of the U.S. His medical missions included austere environments, trauma treatment as well as local primary care. He often worked in areas where no English was spoken. Chris knew Spanish, Portuguese and Thai. He received several military awards and medals for valor, including the Bronze Star for heroic achievement.
Chris Heim’s widow, Yvonne Heim, recalls her husband’s time in the service. “He was good at this job,” she says. “So, a lot of times when Chris’s team was home from the deployment, one of the other teams would ask him to deploy because of his medical skills.”
In fact, Yvonne recalls Chris’ colonel asking if she and Chris were getting along. “I said, yeah, why?”
“Well, because I was just reviewing Chris’s deployment and he is the most deployed person in the whole battalion,” the colonel replied.
Yvonne informed the colonel that when Chris is home another team will snatch him up. “Chris just loved his job, and people just loved him as a medic,” she says.
“From a Special Operations type perspective, Chris was probably more qualified than most,” says Chad Tiller, PA-C, a fellow member of MEDEX Seattle Class 41 and fellow Special Forces Green Beret. Though they never served together, Chad recognized that Chris Heim had multiple MOS’s (Military Occupational Specialties).
“In Special Forces, you have the fundamental unit—the A Team. And on the A Team you have people with multiple jobs,” Chad explains. “You have two medics, two weapons specialists, two combos, communications specialists. You have two engineers, you have an intel person and a team sergeant. Chris, he had every one of those MOS’s. And then he had also spent time in a lot of different units, including some classified units. He would have been considered an elite within the elite.”
“Like most Special Forces people, we’re very complex people,” Chad says. “It takes a certain kind of person to be in Special Operations. You have to be a warrior at heart. But then when you get into medicine, you have to have a softer side as well. And that’s actually a benefit to the unit in that the kind of missions we do are very complex. You really need complex people that can see things from multiple perspectives. You can’t just have a narrow view of things.”
“When something like this happens, it makes you kind of pause for a minute and think about how precious life is,” Chad says. “Especially when it comes to someone like Chris who spent most of his life in extremely dangerous situations and survived. Because there were times—and I know Chris felt this way—there were plenty of days where he knew that walking into a given situation might be the end. You know? There was no way you were going to make it out. You knew that the probability was pretty high that things were going to go bad, but they didn’t. Somehow, you made it back and survived. And then to suddenly die on your motorcycle one day. You know?”
Chris Heim was a motorcycle enthusiast who owned two Harleys and an American Indian. “The year Chris got his first bike we put 70,000 miles on it,” says Yvonne Heim. “We would go to bike rallies. We biked all the way from Washington to Milwaukee for Harley’s 105th anniversary. Yeah, so we were always on that bike, any free minute we had.”
On August 12, 2015, Chris had the day off from work at Alamo Ranch Integrative Medicine and was riding with his longtime friend from the military, George. Together, they rode to a San Antonio Porsche shop to check on repairs to a 1985 Porsche that Chris had bought from his dad. Afterward, they returned home by way of a two-lane country road that passed a local tourist attraction, the Natural Bridge Caverns. George exited first, and it should have been a straight shot to Chris’ house. But for reasons not entirely known, Chris got off the road and crashed into a pole—no skid marks.
“Chris was an experienced rider,” says Yvonne. “He would have laid the bike down.”
An autopsy revealed bleeding in the brain but no head trauma, with the conclusion that Chris had suffered an aneurysm. “The thinking was that he wasn’t feeling right, so he attempted to get off the road like he was going to stop but he just never made it.”
“People were so shocked at his passing because Chris led you to believe that he was invincible,” Yvonne tells us. “He really did. You just knew he was going to live forever.”
At the time of his death Chris worked as a physician assistant with Dr. Teofilo Sanchez at a newly established practice, Alamo Ranch Integrative Medicine, in San Antonio.
“When Chris first came to me he had just graduated from PA school, so he didn’t even have a license to practice yet,” says Dr. Sanchez. “He started out with us as a medical assistant in Emergency Medicine. He did that for a couple of months while he studied for his certification and completed everything to get certification to be a PA licensed in Texas.”
Sanchez appreciated the depth of Chris Heim’s military medical training. “He had a big background because he was a Special Forces medic. Their training course is an abbreviated physician assistant school—very thorough—and they even do dentistry, so he had a pretty broad experience.”
They hit it off very well. “He was a person of high character,” says Sanchez. “That’s one of those things that you can’t put a quantity on. It’s never valuable enough. He had the thing that’s one of the most valuable things for life but especially in medicine: high integrity. He was uncompromising in that sense. Chris always wanted to do what was right for the patient.”
“He was always eager to learn so it was very easy for me to teach him because he didn’t have a lot of predispositions or preconceived notions of things. He was very open to learning and learning different ways of doing things. Everything I ever tried to teach him, he always asked the right questions. If he wasn’t sure about something, he would just ask the right question or he’d read about it on his own, trying to figure things out. His nature was to be real meticulous, very ordered and organized, and that’s the way he approached medicine.”
“I always joke he’s better that 85%, 90% of licensed physicians because he was just that meticulous,” says Dr. Sanchez. “He would catch things that other docs would miss. And that’s because he just took to it that well. He paid attention and saw the patients. He was a very cautious practitioner—very careful. He looked at the whole picture and exemplified all the good things in medicine. He could be stern with the patient, and wasn’t a pushover by any means. He always did what was right for them even if they didn’t see that was the right thing to do. For me, this was a big benefit because I knew they were in good hands”
“In hindsight now, for me, it’s been a tremendous loss. He’s very much like a brother to me. We worked so much side by side. We worked together in the clinic, in the emergency room, various places. Socially, we hung out on our days off. Even after a 12-hour shift, we’d go out, eat dinner, just hang out and listen to music—those kind of things.
Together, Dr. Sanchez and Chris Heim worked towards the establishment of a new clinic, Alamo Ranch Integrative Medicine. “He was a part of it, not in a financial sense. I didn’t ask him for any backing, but he was a large part of it. We loved working together.”
The clinic opened in April of 2015. “Fortunately, he got to see it built,” says Dr. Sanchez. “We were only open four months before he passed. I didn’t quite have him long enough, but it’s better to have had him a few short years than not at all. You don’t get too many people like that in your life, whether they’re family or friends. We were all the better for knowing him.”
For two years Krista Tannery, PA-C, rode the bus with Chris every day from the Tacoma Dome to the Seattle-based University of Washington campus of the MEDEX PA program. “We actually met back in 2007 right after we both found out we were accepted into MEDEX,” she tells us. The program had sent out list of everyone in the upcoming Class 41, including a brief bio. Krista noticed that Chris Heim was a Green Beret, the same as her fiancé (now her husband). “Prior to the start of class I reached out to Chris and found out that he would be at Fort Bragg for a training. My husband and I met up with him at the Green Beret club there, and it was just instantaneous. I knew right then and there that this was somebody that would be a lifelong friend.”
When school started Krista and Chris would meet up early for coffee and talk about politics and music. “PA school as you know is very intense,” Krista tells us. “He was a rock for me during these very stressful and challenging times. He was always able to put things into perspective.”
Krista’s husband-to-be was seriously injured while overseas during her time in PA school. “I was very scared and alone, and Chris helped me through a very tough time,” Krista says. I will be forever indebted to him for that. He came to our wedding.”
Krista recalls her subsequent wedding ceremony as a very small, intimate gathering that Chris and his wife, Yvonne, attended. “He spoke at my wedding, and so was present at two of the most special days of my life: my wedding and my graduation from MEDEX PA school.”
A fellow cohort from MEDEX Seattle Class 41 concurs with Krista’s characterization of Chris Heim. “Chris was very much the anchor of our class,” says Jeanette Kotch, PA-C. “If the class had a heated discussion, he was able to put insight into whatever topic we were talking about and bring it back to the center. His background was military and I’m sure gave him that ability to do that. He’d seen a lot worse than having finals come up”
Jeanette reports that sometimes the class would focus on what they’d call touchy-feely topics. “Again, Chris was able to bring us to reality,” she says. “And while it was done in a fun and humorous way, it was a very powerful statement. ‘Yes, it’s all touchy-feely, but really, let’s come back to reality because we have to help our patients. We have to treat them. They’re here for a reason and we got to treat that.’ Chris always was calm about things because he’d seen so much worse. And yet he still had these big visions. He saw way beyond the moment we were in. He knew things would be fine. Things would be better.”
Jeanette concludes, “Chris didn’t do things partially. He was whole-hearted into whatever he did.”
In 2016 Jeanette provided the seed money to start the Christopher A. Heim Memorial Fund through the University of Washington. Chris’s wife, Yvonne, felt so passionate about the fund that she contributed $10,000. The fund establishes an award in Chris’ name to be presented annually to an outstanding military veteran among the current MEDEX cohort. The hope is to build the Memorial Fund to a total of $25,000 which would qualify it as an endowed scholarship under the University of Washington.
The inaugural cash award under the Christopher A. Heim Memorial Fund will be given to James Chally of MEDEX Seattle Class 49. James is a Pat Tillman Military Scholar, was selected by the UW as one of the Husky 100, currently serves as class president for his Seattle class, and is member of the Washington National Guard where he continues to serve as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant.
This award will be presented at the 2017 MEDEX Alumni Reception & Awards Ceremony on Saturday, April 22nd. Chris’ family members and friends will be present for the event. For details of time and location see the digital flyer at https://goo.gl/rwNRRU.
Individuals who would like to contribute to the ongoing Chris Heim Memorial Fund may do so by directing their gift to UW Medicine Advancement, Box 358045, Seattle WA 98195-8045. You can also make your donation online by going to supportuwmedicine.org/heim.