American Legion commander recovering from heart surgery

Oakland resident Kurt Gies, founder of Challenge 22, had an emergency quintuple bypass surgery.

Oakland resident Kurt Gies underwent a quintuple bypass surgery in May. He was up and walking within 10 hours.
Oakland resident Kurt Gies underwent a quintuple bypass surgery in May. He was up and walking within 10 hours.
Courtesy photo
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It was 2:30 a.m. May 23 when Kurt Gies woke up experiencing severe chest pains and discomfort in his right arm. 

At around 4 a.m., Gies walked across the street from his Oakland home to see his neighbor, a former U.S. Navy nurse. 

“I told him something didn’t feel right, and he looked at me but said everything was fine and I may have just overworked my shoulder — which I had surgery on in December —  at work,” Gies said. “And with the sun being as hot as it was, I could have had some heat stroke. As a precaution, he told me to go home and take some aspirin. I did, and then I was coughing — I had heard if you’re having some sort of heart condition that coughing will help it — so I was doing that every once in a while.”

That day, Gies planned to pick up his wife, Lana, from the airport.

“I was debating on whether or not I should drive there, but I thought I felt OK,” he said. “After I picked her up, I planned on getting checked out. Once she was in the car, I asked her to drop me off at the emergency room, because I knew something was wrong. The pain had progressed to my neck and jaw areas, which I had read means something is happening with your heart.”


Gies’ father had a heart attack at 35 years old and a triple bypass surgery when he was 55 years old.

“Me and my brothers knew that there was something that could potentially happen if we don’t take care of our health,” Gies said. “I have an EKG every year. I have my blood pressure checked all the time. I watch my cholesterol levels. The only indicator I had that there was something wrong was that I was eating very poorly, but my numbers were fine. My brothers usually have very high numbers and take some things to keep that under control, but historically, my stuff is all lower than normal. Even though my wife is a nutritionist, I didn’t listen to her, and I was just eating whatever I wanted to eat. Unfortunately, it was killing me.”

After some tests, doctors at AdventHealth Winter Garden discovered Gies had elevated levels of troponin, a protein released into the bloodstream when the heart is injured or damaged. An average person’s troponin level is less than 20; anything more than 40 signifies a heart attack. 

Gies’ was at 130. 

He was admitted to the hospital, where he had an echocardiogram followed by a heart catheterization in the morning at AdventHealth Apopka.

Kurt Gies said the community support has been amazing, and he had multiple friends and family members visit him during his hospital stay.
Courtesy photo

“They gave me some pain meds, because it was still sore,” he said. “It was nothing like what I ever imagined a heart attack to feel like. … The cardiologist at AdventHealth said based on what they saw that there was a 99% chance I would go, have some stints put in and I would be home by the afternoon. It didn’t sound like that big of a deal. … I was about 20 minutes into the two hour procedure when everything stopped and I was told I needed a bypass surgery and that we should get it done today.”

Gies was transported to AdventHealth Celebration May 24. 

Gies married his wife in 2016. The couple wanted to get married on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and the date they picked was Friday, March 18 — Gies’ father’s birthday. As they were rolling him back in the ER, Gies said he was very aware that on May 24, 2006, his father died of a heart attack. 

“I told myself I had borrowed his birthday, but I wasn’t taking his death day,” he said. “I had a spiritual moment. I really believe Jesus came to me and wrapped his arms around me and told me nothing was going to happen to me that day. He told me I had way too much work to still do. So, I just trusted it. … It all happened so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to think about it. I went from a 99% chance of nothing to pretty much as bad as you can get.”

Winter Garden’s Mosaic Church Pastor Renaut van der Riet helped bring peace to Gies during this time.

“When I first heard that I had had a heart attack, I was kind of anxious, because I wasn’t sure what it meant or why it happened,” he said. “Renaut called me, because we were supposed to have a meeting that morning, and I missed it. … He calmed me down quite a bit. He told me not to stress about it, and he prayed for me. From that point forward to today, I’ve had almost no anxiety or worries. Everything has been peaceful. Even though everything happening was stressful, I recognized that this wasn’t my time.”


Gies was up and walking within 10 hours of the surgery, and he was out of the ICU, where most patients following the surgery stay for about two to three days, within 20 hours.

Four days later, on May 28, Gies was headed home, days earlier than the typical patient. 

He said he found at each step of the process the person God put in his path at that specific time played the exact role and function he needed.

“The hospitals were great,” Gies said. “The people and the staff were amazing. The minute I walked into the ER, I made a conscious decision I was going to honor and thank every person who served me for what they were doing. This is so routine for them, because they have to do it all the time, and I wanted to let them know that I was hearing, feeling and appreciating what they were doing so they could be better and stronger for the next person following me.”

One week later, Gies took a golf cart trip to the local farmers market, attended a barbecue for a friend and completed a one-mile walk on the West Orange Trail. 

Last week, he led his last American Legion Post 62 executive committee meeting to end a six-year era and walked 2.2 miles home.

“I’ve had more energy than I’ve ever had in my entire life,” he said.

Kurt Gies already is up and walking a few miles throughout the week.
Courtesy photo


Gies is a well-known and beloved member of the West Orange County community, although he will never admit it.

He was selected by District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson as Citizen of the Year in 2023.

He is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and serves as the commander of American Legion Post 63 in Winter Garden

After learning how many veterans are lost every day to suicide, he founded Challenge 22, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and funding lifesaving mental health treatment.

He is now looking forward to taking Challenge 22 nationwide and making it a full-time gig. 

Although doctors told Gies it will be about six to eight weeks before he can do anything, he believes his recovery will be closer to four weeks. He is focusing on having a healthier relationship with food and listening to his body throughout the recovery process.

He has several scheduled visits with doctors for follow-ups and will eventually attend cardiac rehab. 

Gies said the outpouring of support from the community has been nonstop.

“I’ve learned three things out of this process,” he said. “My faith is a lot stronger than I thought it was, and because of that I can honestly say the only negative reaction was the one I initially had when I was feeling anxious. The second thing is when you honor and praise people for the work they do; it’s not only the right thing to do because they work hard and half of the people don’t praise them, but when they are recognized they respond to that. The third thing is no matter what your numbers are, if you’re eating poorly, it’s going to kill you.”



Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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