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”Cardiac Surgery and Rehab Made Me Whole Again”

Brian Winslow has been described by many people as having a lot of heart. Now part of that heart is mechanical.
Category: Cardiology

At age 33, Brian had open heart surgery at Baystate Medical Center to treat a lifelong condition. As a self-described “sports guy” his main focus was to get back on the field, coaching high school baseball and playing on recreational teams with friends.

Brian said that this experience has changed him, but in the spirit of true sportsmanship, he gives most of the credit to his Baystate Health care team. 

THROUGH THE LEAGUES

Brian was born with an aortic valve defect, and had a valvioplasty at age four. Brian said, “One of the first questions that my mom had for the surgeon was ‘can he still play sports?’” She was reassured that her son would not have restrictions and that he would still be able to play sports, but that he would not have a career as a professional athlete due to his heart condition. “For most people that would be good news,” laughed Brian’s wife, Stephanie, “but that was their hope for him. We joke that their early retirement plans went out the window that day.”

Brian happily settled into an active childhood, went on to graduate from Westfield State University, and landed a job as a teacher at the Franklin County Technical School, where he coached the baseball team. He spent his free time playing on recreational baseball and softball teams, and was already trying to determine if his one-year-old twin boys would be batting lefty or righty. 

Another hobby of Brian’s was obstacle course racing. It was during one of these events that Stephanie, a nurse at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, noticed that something wasn’t right.

Despite a normal, healthy life, Brian learned at his annual echocardiogram (a test that uses sound waves to make pictures of the heart) that his heart would need repair once again. After a heart procedure 29 years prior, he was told that he would need to have the valve replaced at some point in his thirties. Most visits to his cardiologist, Dr. Nitin Bhatnagar, ended with an appointment card to come back the following year. But at one such appointment, he learned that the dilation of the ventricles in his heart – combined with the symptoms he was starting to feel – meant that it was time to plan for surgery. “My cardiologist referred me to Baystate Cardiac Surgery, which I quickly learned was the best choice for cardiac surgery.” 

BATTER UP

“I knew the day would come, but man, I thought I had more time,” said Brian. “It was a true balancing act; I didn’t want the surgery before I needed it, but if they waited, I would have gone into heart failure and it would have been too late.”

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Brian enjoyed Christmas at home with his family, followed a few days later by open heart surgery at Baystate Medical Center. Stephanie, an experienced emergency department nurse, recalls the feeling of being a loved one rather than a caregiver.

“I was on the other side of the fence,” she said, “and the nurses were awesome. His mom and I were in the waiting room, and his assigned nurse kept coming to see us, giving us step-by-step updates and feedback. She was evaluating him, and knew everything about him and also kept us informed. When she wasn’t talking to us, she was in his room, by his side. I can’t describe how comforting that was, knowing that her main priority was Brian.”

“No one minimized the importance of the surgery and my condition,” said Brian. “All of the doctors, the nurses, they were all on the same page about the importance of the situation but never made me feel overwhelmed. Everyone was very reassuring and at the same time, self-assured."

Brian’s valve replacement went as planned, despite scar tissue from his surgery as a child. The he only hiccup in his recovery was a snowstorm that prevented Stephanie from visiting him in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) the following day. 

In less than a week, Brian was heading home to recover; but in many ways his journey had just begun. 

ON THE BENCH

“They fixed the physical ailment, but I was left with unrest in my mental well-being. The trauma and mental health piece has been the biggest challenge for me,” said Brian. “These feelings started day one, the day I was told it was time for surgery. How do I keep myself mentally strong, and how to I remain confident with who I am, knowing that my life will be changing? Everyone kept telling me that I was healthy and it would be okay… but if I am so healthy, why I am the one who has to test my blood, go to these appointments, and deal with this?”

Brian began cardiac rehab at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, not far from his home in Northfield. He walked in the door on the first day for his intake appointment and remembers being fearful, and physically guarding his chest.

“I went from being an athlete, not a top-level athlete but an active guy, to being completely humbled. My confidence was shot, my engine was defective. Although I was the youngest person in the room, everyone was going through the same stuff. At cardiac rehab, I was not alone.” 

Brian worked closely with his nurses, Cheryl May and Patti Bliznak, and slowly started the process of healing, mentally and physically. In addition to exercise, they practiced meditation and visualization in an effort to deal with his stress and trauma. He started to adopt lifestyle changes and adjust to taking blood thinners daily – a lifelong necessity. 

“I was so impressed that the care did not stop once I was physically healed,” said Brian. “I had a team from the start, and I credit cardiac rehab with helping me to feel human again. If I could give one piece of advice to anyone who has a similar situation, it’s this – go to cardiac rehab and get yourself a support system. It’s a game changer.”

HEY, COACH

Brian began to acclimate to normal life, resumed his coaching job in the spring, and was back on the field playing recreationally by summertime. Today he remains dedicated to improving his mental health, most recently participating in the SMART Program for stress management at Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

Stephanie said that Brian has always been a laid-back guy, but he has taken this experience to heart – literally. 

“It changes you,” Brian explained. “I am a different person now. I am more introspective and I think it’s a good thing. I am not as reactionary. When my students are having problems, I remind them that in the grand scheme of life, it’s not a big deal. Your heart is beating, and you are here; let’s appreciate what we have.”