Heart on the mound

As he visited C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital recently, tiny feet followed in Tyler Brennan’s large footsteps. Hopeful parents followed closely behind him.

Tyler is a role model for the group of children gathered at Mott to meet him. A source of comfort for worried parents, he is an inspiration. To the surgeons and staff at Mott who have come to know him, he is a pioneer.

Tyler was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital birth defect occurring when parts of the left side of the heart do not completely develop.

Tyler, 16, has also led his basketball team to state championships and all-conference titles. He was the first freshman to pitch varsity baseball at his high school in southern Illinois. Letters from college baseball programs looking to recruit Tyler, including University of Michigan’s, have started collecting at his home.

No one ever expected Tyler to accomplish what he has in what his parents refer to as “just the beginning” of this determined teenager’s long life. Those meeting him today find it hard to believe that he has undergone four open-heart surgeries, the final in May of this year.

“Tyler has done a lot of things normal kids would have a hard time doing, let alone kids with this kind of condition. That’s what makes him so special,” says his father, Rob Brennan. Shortly after his birth in August of 1994, Tyler went into respiratory distress. Doctors near his hometown soon diagnosed his heart condition.

In a normal heart, the left side receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it to the rest of the body. When these structures are underdeveloped or absent, as is the case in HLHS, they cannot circulate blood to other organs. Additional stress is placed on the right ventricle, as it must make up for the weak left ventricle.

On the recommendation of a friend whose granddaughter had been treated at Mott, the Brennans called Edward Bove, M.D., the Head of the Section of Cardiac Surgery at U-M C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“Within 15 minutes, Dr. Bove returned my call and within three hours Tyler was on a helicopter heading to Ann Arbor,” remembers Rob Brennan. Bove, widely recognized for his work surgically repairing HLHS, assured the Brennans that he could successfully treat their son.

“He had our trust from the very beginning,” says Tina Brennan, Tyler’s mom.

Without life-prolonging interventions, HLHS is fatal. But with a set of surgeries or a full heart transplant, an infant may survive. Bove and the team at U-M’s Congenital Heart Center performed the first of Tyler’s surgeries just six days after his birth. Two additional procedures were performed at Mott, all before Tyler’s second birthday.

Considered by many to be one of the world’s outstanding pediatric heart programs, it was named third in the country by U.S. News & World Report this year. Along with the Mott team, Bove has become known for his work correcting heart conditions like HLHS. At the time he was training to become a surgeon, every baby born with HLHS died. Through his persistence in perfecting the three operations patients like Tyler needed, and with the dedication of the U-M’s team, HLHS patients now have very good odds. More than 90 percent of HLHS babies treated at U-M survive the first operation. Those who have the second and third operations have an even higher chance of living.

“It’s unbelievably satisfying to know that when I first became a surgeon, babies with this condition rarely survived and now these kids are going on to do great things,” says Bove. “It gives my colleagues and me tremendous satisfaction when we see cases like this and know that it was worth all of our effort.”

Tyler’s parents were initially concerned that he may be physically limited by the condition, which can cause heart complications and severe fatigue. “We had big questions at the time,” says Tina, “Is he going to be able to run? Will he be able to keep up with his sisters?”

Sixteen years later Tyler reassures his parents: “I feel just like a normal kid.”

Jason Woodworth, Tyler’s high school baseball coach, praises the young pitching star’s ability to lead his team mates by example. “To see Tyler’s love of baseball and willingness to compete to be one of the best players is truly inspirational and I hope that it helps other kids to realize how amazing they can be,” Woodworth says.

The Brennans and Bove work together to manage Tyler’s health, discussing Tyler’s athletic career often. The U-M staff has always encouraged Tyler to be allowed to try activities that interest him.

Following his latest surgery, to open up an artery that had narrowed over time, Bove made Tyler a big promise: “I’ll get you back on the field.”

Next time the Brennans visit Ann Arbor, they hope it’s to see their son pitch for the Wolverines.

Web Address: http://mottblog.org/533/heart-on-the-mound/