Last week, Britton Helmuth heard the words he’s been waiting for – play ball!
Britton, 13, was in a crowded exam room at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health with his parents and four younger siblings gathered around him. Renowned heart surgeon John Brown listened carefully to the beat of Britton’s heart, reviewed his X-ray and pronounced him fit to take the field.
The young baseball player’s repaired heart may have skipped a beat inside, but outside Britton was cool like any teen would be. A small smile crept across his face. Opening day of Little League season in Harlan, Indiana, just northeast of Fort Wayne, is in late April.
Britton alternates between pitcher and shortstop, critical positions on the diamond. His fastball is at about 65 mph, his dad says, but after surgery, who knows? He’s already been warming up at home, his mom says.
It was just a month ago that Britton, the eldest child of Myron and Laura Helmuth, lay in a hospital bed at Riley, recovering from open-heart surgery to replace an abnormal aortic valve that had become further diseased by a staph infection. Dr. Brown and Dr. Jeremy Herrmann teamed up to perform the Ross Procedure on the boy, taking out his bad aortic valve and putting his pulmonary valve in its place, then replacing the pulmonary valve with a cadaver valve, called a pulmonary allograft.
It’s a procedure Dr. Brown has been doing for 25 years at Riley and training others to do around the world. He and Dr. Herrmann have been performing the operation together for the past three years.
“A lot of valves we can repair; his valve was unrepairable,” Dr. Brown said. “It leaked horribly, and the infection had eaten part of the valve away. We found a bit of a mess in there, but we got it all taken out.”
It’s not the first time Dr. Brown has seen Britton in the operating room. Thirteen years ago, when Britton was just three months old, he was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve opening, which restricts blood flow.
Laura Helmuth still remembers the terror she felt when her first-born turned blue and vomited in his car seat one day while she was out shopping. His breathing returned, but it was irregular. She rushed him to a hospital in Fort Wayne, where medical staff determined he needed to be sent to Riley.
She and her husband followed in a car while a team of specialists rushed their baby via ambulance to Riley.
“It was basically life or death every fleeting second,” Myron Helmuth said. “We almost lost him; that was the true test of our faith for his life.”
They were comforted by the calm confidence of Dr. Brown, who would go on to repair their son’s leaky mitral valve and explain to them that down the road Britton would need aortic valve surgery.
“I remember when Dr. Brown came in before the surgery 13 years ago he just assured us that he was going to take care of Britton as if he was his own son or grandson, and I just remember how much that did for my mommy heart,” Laura Helmuth said. “I remember those words even this time. I just knew he was going to care for him and do like he would for his own. It was reassuring.”
It’s hard to hand your child over to a stranger, knowing what they’re going to have to go through, not knowing really what the outcome will be, she said, “but ultimately we trusted God.”
And this time, it wasn’t a stranger they were handing their child over to, it was the man who saved their son’s life once before – Dr. Brown. The same man who prayed with the Helmuth family the first time and said, “We’re going to give it to God and he can use my hands.”
Those hands have worked miracles in thousands of patients over the years, which explains why Dr. Brown recently received Indiana’s highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash, for his decades of lifesaving work at Riley.
The six-hour surgery to repair Britton’s heart last month went smoothly, and seeing their now-healthy patient four weeks later is rewarding for both surgeons.
“This is the best part of what we do because even when they leave the hospital, they’re not 100 percent recovered,” Dr. Herrmann said. “To see somebody come back, recovered, feeling better, that’s the most gratifying part of our job.”
For his part, Britton said he was scared before the surgery but comforted by the presence of his parents, who stayed in his hospital room with him, and by FaceTime visits with his siblings, whom he could see from his room overlooking Simon Family Tower. Flu restrictions prevented them from coming upstairs.
Today, he’s wearing a Riley sweatshirt autographed by Dr. Brown and Dr. Herrmann, as well as his cardiologist in Fort Wayne. The seventh-grader looks after his younger siblings as his parents talk, a task that seems to come naturally to him.
Asked how they would describe their brother, one of the children said simply, “He’s kind.”
Britton was a model patient, Dr. Brown said, with the benefit of a loving, supportive family. He’ll need follow-up care into adulthood, “but we’re hoping this is the only heart valve operation he needs in his lifetime.”
The Ross aortic valve will grow as Britton grows, and because it is living tissue and not mechanical, the teen won’t need to take blood thinners for the rest of his life. If he’d been put on blood thinners, it would have prevented him from playing contact sports like baseball.
“We don’t restrict patients after they recover from this operation,” Dr. Brown said. “We let them go back to their normal activities. The only thing we restrict is power lifting. Football, baseball, all that stuff is fine.”
Those words ease the fears Britton’s mom has about her son going back on the field. That and the chest protector he will wear on the pitching mound.
“He has the doctor’s consent, so I’m good with it,” Laura Helmuth said. “I like to see him active. The day he is not active is the day I worry.”
The Helmuths say they owe a debt of gratitude to the entire Riley team who cared for their son.
“I’m amazed at the care,” Myron said. “The doctors, the nurses, they’ve all become like family to us. When we see them in the hall, we want to give them a hug. I’m very grateful for their hands and hearts.”
– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist