Heart in the right place: Meet the man behind the camera

Gus Dexheimer, Editor-in-Chief

He made it all the way up the staircase before it happened.

“I was at the University of the Incarnate Word and my heart started accelerating. Since I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t call 911. I just got a ride to the emergency room nearby. You do funny things when you don’t have health insurance.”

Mike Guerrero sits at the wide table looking into the courtyard in the Foundation Office. To his left is his desk, the walls around which are plastered with photos of his wife and Maisie and Romy, his two daughters.

“On average, four students a year of die of something they were born with that they had no idea they had until they collapsed and had a tragic episode,” he says.

Like the average four students per year, twenty-five year old Guerrero was totally unaware of the congenital heart disease that plagued his body. Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome is present in around 272,000 Americans, but it is asymptomatic, which almost guarantees that the patient won’t know of its presence until they enter cardiac arrest.

Oblivious to his medical condition, Guerrero was not thinking about cardiac arrest at that time of his episode. Rather, his thoughts were consumed by museum exhibits designed for toddlers, lacrosse, and school.

A native of Austin and an Austin High School graduate, Guerrero left Texas shortly for his freshman year of college to play lacrosse at Catawba College in North Carolina.

“I just really wanted to play lacrosse,” he says. “That’s all I knew when I graduated. I was just so headstrong that I wanted to play college lacrosse, like I wanted that NCAA letter saying that you’re a student athlete.”

Although he didn’t have direct plans, he knew he had an interest in radio, in communicating.

“I really wanted to be in radio, actually. Cause my dad has a really good voice and I thought that I had a really good voice, and I was just really involved with listening to talk shows and things like that.”

After a triumphant first semester of playing lacrosse and studying the art of communication, Guerrero’s second semester found him undergoing a shift.

“I knew I was spending a lot of money and I wasn’t paying attention in class,” he says. “I realized after my freshman year that maybe I wasn’t ready for college, that’s why I went to work.”  

Guerrero moved back to Austin where his mother helped him land a job somewhere that wasn’t quite a radio station–The Austin Children’s Museum at a summer camp.

Guerrero poses with co-workers at the Austin Children's Museum.
Guerrero poses with co-workers at the Austin Children’s Museum.

“I got into education that way in some sense. After summer camp was finished, they found another position for me because I really enjoyed it.”

Moving through the ranks in his job, Guerrero soon became a manager and his flexible hours allowed him to go back to school, beginning at Austin Community College,  transferring later to Texas State.

Besides providing him a job, The Austin Children’s Museum exposed Guerrero to something he would come to work with for the foreseeable future–kids.

“I would say [the best part of working there was that] you’re around kids, you’re around such energy, seeing the excitement of little kids running through the door, ready to experience amazing things.”

Working as manager at the children’s museum on Wednesday nights and weekends and going to school by day, Guerrero took a job as a part time nanny in San Antonio. One day, Guerrero was climbing the staircase into the library to study, and he felt his heartbeat quicken as pain shot through his chest, and the left side of his body began to tingle.

Thirty minutes passed and his heartbeat grew faster. Driven by a friend, Guerrero was rushed to the hospital where several doctors descended upon him.

“My heart was literally pounding out of my shirt. They rushed me back, and [I remember] the shirt getting cut open.”

When his heart rate slowed to normal, Guerrero was sent to a cardiologist and diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome then sent to an electrophysiologist in San Antonio who told him that he would require heart surgery.

“Since I was twenty-five at the time, I was beyond my parents insurance, so I didn’t know how I was going to get fixed.”

But Guerrero’s worries were soothed when he met the doctor.

“…this doctor came in and she said, ‘I’m going to do your surgery for free.’”

Guerrero’s surgery was performed free of charge and his life was saved. The doctor who saved him “changed my life in the sense that I went to school after that to study basically how to do cardiac rehab.”

Interested in the science behind his condition, Guerrero began to study physiology. “I really got into the science aspect of things because I really wanted to find out what was happening [in my body].”

And Guerrero’s life wasn’t the only one influenced by the cardiac episode. As Guerrero finished his graduate degree also at Texas State, he and his mother became regular volunteers at a nonprofit, Championship Hearts Foundation.

Guerrero represents the Championship Hearts Foundation where he worked for four years.
Guerrero represents the Championship Hearts Foundation where he worked for four years.

Inspired by sudden attacks like Guerrero’s, and the asymptomatic nature of diseases like Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, the foundation was created to provide free heart screenings to students around Texas in an attempt to prevent tragedies.

Volunteering at the foundation throughout graduate school, Guerrero was hired full time upon his graduation.

“I was traveling all throughout the state doing the heart screenings,” he says. “Not only was I doing the events, I was also doing all the marketing behind it and all the website and all of the brochures and things, so I got real big into the media side of things.”

Without any past experience in media, Guerrero was completely self taught. Nonetheless, the job proved rewarding.

“It was twofold in the sense that it was tough but it was also very good because whenever we came across a student that had something, I could go to them and say, ‘Hey I had the same thing and I’m still here. You’re going to be okay, nothing bad is going to happen to you now.’”

Another “fold” to the position was communicating with cardiologists and doctors in order to provide children who tested positive for a heart condition with affordable care.

“A lot of what we set up was working with pediatric cardiologists that would do somethings at a reduced rate, if not free…a lot of people from free screenings typically don’t have the financial means to go further with the process… so we made sure that the follow through was there.”

Traveling across Texas to help with the Saturday screenings, Guerrero adjusted to the his new job quickly. However, after four years, he found out that his wife was expecting his first daughter. Guerrero decided that now that his family was growing, his position at Championship Hearts required him to be away from home too much.

Guerrero poses with his daughters. The eldest is Maisie, the younger Romy, which is short for Rosemary.
Guerrero poses with his daughters. The eldest is Maisie, the younger Romy, which is short for Rosemary.

On May 22nd, 2014, Guerrero arrived for the first time in the Ann Richards Foundation Office.

He has been the Communications and Events Manager at the Ann Richards Foundation for the past two years, working on fundraising, the website, events, social media, and “things that we do like that to bring awareness and advocacy and fundraising to the school.” 

Although different from his positions at the other non-profits, The Austin Children’s Museum and Championship Hearts, Guerrero has found his job incredibly rewarding. It may be the best decision he ever made.
“I feel the impact everyday, whereas my previous job, it was only on Saturdays,” he says, referring to the Saturday morning heart screenings.  “Here, you see it in the halls, you see the energy, you feel the students grow as leaders everyday. Here you know that y’all are working hard to get to college, so we do everything we can to help support that.”