KHOU (Channel 11) reporter Jeremy Desel returns to the air tonight with a story about the future of NASA and the Johnson Space Center — vital stuff, no doubt, but hardly the taut, personal, dramatic sort of tale that has characterized his decade on Houston television.

Desel’s mere presence on the air tonight, though, is sufficiently dramatic in its own right.

At age 39, he is two months removed from open heart surgery to repair a defect that could have struck him down in the middle of the newsroom or, for that matter, in the middle of Galveston Island during Hurricane Ike.

“I look back now and see things that should have been red flags, things that I wrote off at the time to the fact that I had a baby at home,” he said. “What this has taught me is to listen to my body and to see my doctor at least once a year.”

Desel’s off-screen tale began with the sort of coincidence that normally highlights health-related stories on TV newscasts. A few weeks removed from back-to-back stints on hurricanes Gustav and Ike, he scheduled a doctor’s visit in November in search of antibiotics for a sore throat.

“The doc put the stethoscope on me and said, ‘How long have you had that wicked murmur?’” Desel said. “I said, ‘What?’ I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t expecting any personal drama.”

His physician referred him to a cardiologist who diagnosed a defective mitral valve, which had produced a condition known as mitral regurgitation, in which blood flows back into the chamber after the heart muscle attempts to push it forward.

The heart muscle expanded and thickened to keep pace with the increased workload, and by the time Desel was being prepped for surgery, he said he could see his chest expand and contract to match the rhythm of his overworked heart.

He underwent successful surgery Dec. 8 at Methodist Hospital’s DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, but his recovery was complicated for a time by a series of transient ischemic attacks, or mini-strokes, as his body coped with the aftermath of the procedure.

He was released from the hospital six weeks ago, he said, with a series of general instructions on how to progress in his recovery.

“They told me I should avoid high-stress environments,” he said, laughing. “So I walked back into the newsroom (10 days ago). But I’m easing into the deadline pressure as I see what I can do and what my comfort level is.”

One of the first things he did was to examine some of the stories he filmed before he was diagnosed to see if he could pick up any signs of his compromised physical condition.

One of the clearest signs, he said, came from a trip during Ike to the 16th floor of the San Luis Hotel, site of Channel 11’s storm bureau.

“I’ve always been a relatively in-shape guy,” he said. “But I got stopped dead in my tracks after four flights of stairs by shortness of breath. That should have been the absolute red flag, but I wrote it off to the baby, getting no sleep and being on the road for two hurricanes.

“Now, I can watch my live shots during Ike and hear the shortness of breath. And so can others I’ve shown (the stories).”

That group presumably includes Channel 11 news director Keith Connors, who understandably was shaken by Desel’s subsequent diagnosis.

“He’s a big, burly, strapping guy, and it’s hard to think of him as being vulnerable,” Connors said. “… He did incredible work in Galveston. He was working 12, 20, 24 hours and never backed down from any of it.”

Desel, a veteran of the Chicago Marathon, is limited to walking these days but is pleased with the pace of his recovery. He’s happy to be working, and Connors is glad to have him back.

“We were very worried that he wasn’t going to make it through, much less make it back on the air,” Connors said. “But we’re happy he’s on the mend and hope to have him back on the air and breaking stories for us.

“His is a cautionary tale to be sure that you take your health serious. It could have been a tragedy and not the triumph we’re talking about today.”