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By: Drew Brooks

Dennis Cheek and students in lab
Dennis Cheek, Abell-Hanger professor of gerontological nursing, helps students in his lab.

Dr. Dennis Cheek is the Abell-Hanger Professor of Gerontological Nursing, an endowed faculty appointment within TCU Nursing. Dr. Cheek came to TCU in the fall of 2003, making the fall of 2023 the start of his 20th year with the university. He teaches five classes, two at the undergraduate level, two at the graduate level, and one at the doctoral level. Dr. Cheek teaches courses in two Harris College academic units – TCU Nursing and the School of Nurse Anesthesia.

His favorite part of teaching with TCU is the teacher-scholar-practitioner model.

“Being able to teach and mentor students has been the greatest part,” he says.

When his oldest daughter had a child born in downtown Harris Hospital, he walked into the room to be greeted by several nurses and a midwife who had all been his former students.

Seeing professionals who were once his students has been a reward for him as well as a reinforcement. He knows his students will be caring for him and his family in the future, and he is confident that their education in TCU Nursing will equip them to serve well.

Dr. Cheek’s scholarship centers on cardiovascular function. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. While heart disease impacts both men and women, the risk of cardiovascular accidents — i.e., heart attacks — is often underestimated in women, and women are less likely to be referred for diagnostic cardiovascular testing compared to men.

Dennis Cheek
Dennis Cheek, Abell-Hanger professor of gerontological nursing, TCU nursing program, Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

When his mother-in-law’s seemingly harmless scratchy throat turned into a double bypass surgery, Dr. Cheek decided to focus his future research program on answering questions that would enable us to better understand cardiovascular disease.

It is a common misconception that heart disease is a disease only affecting men, but, as Dr. Cheek has learned, the statistics reveal that more women are dying from it. While men on average experience a first heart attack at younger ages than women, the survival rate for women is worse. Dr. Cheek’s research seeks to shed light on this phenomenon.

When his mother-in-law visited his family and complained of a scratchy throat, Dr. Cheek thought little of it. Maybe it was simply the cold air she was breathing in while she walked around. Or maybe it was just a result of her age. However, after failing evaluative tests during a follow-up, she had a procedure that revealed her right heart vessel was 99% closed and her left heart vessel was 80% closed.

Thankfully, she was able to receive double bypass surgery and lived for another 24 years. Despite lacking all the typical signs of a heart attack, Dr. Cheek’s mother-in-law had been in danger. Had she not been evaluated for heart disease, “she would’ve had a huge heart attack and would have passed,” he explained.

The anatomy of men and women is different. While men typically have trouble with the blood vessels on the surface of the heart, women typically have trouble with the smaller vessels that run into the heart. This makes it harder to determine the problem in women and maybe a reason why heart disease is under-appreciated in women compared to men.

As a teacher and scholar with TCU Nursing and Harris College, Dr. Cheek is investigating the presentation of cardiovascular disease as a function of gender and is specifically studying those with Type 1 diabetes. Diabetes is the number one contributor to heart disease, so he is currently leading a study of those who are using a monitor to keep blood sugar levels tightly regulated to measure their blood vessels compared to individuals without diabetes.

Along with his interesting research into heart disease, Dr. Cheek is also studying precision medicine, or pharmacogenomics, and measuring the biomarker cortisol from human hair.

Harris College has been instrumental in facilitating Dr. Cheek’s research. His research lab, located on the second floor of the Bass building, is one of the few lab spaces in the college designed for bench (i.e., basic) science and translational research. His research collaborations include partnerships with faculty colleagues and students, and he has published papers in some of the most prestigious journals of his discipline and presented study results at regional, national, and international conferences.

Dr. Cheek loves TCU and has dedicated his career to educating the next generation of nurses and nurse scientists. He loves its teacher-scholar-practitioner model and the ethos of TCU, which is that it always puts its students first.