AURORA, Colo. – Some people might consider Brian McNeill a walking miracle.
The 38-year-old from Salida is married to his high school sweetheart, Kelsey. Together, the couple has two daughters, ages 4 and 8.
Brian is an active Coloradan and considers himself a relatively healthy guy. He had his aortic valve replaced three years ago due to a birth defect but says otherwise, he has had no major health issues.
That all changed in July 2018.
“I noticed that my right foot started to hurt really bad,” he told FOX31.
Brian had to be airlifted to a hospital in Colorado Springs, where doctors diagnosed him with a blood clot.
“And we thought everything was going to be hunky-dory after that,” Brian said.
A few weeks later, he says he experienced a similar pain in his arm. That time, he went to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Doctors removed what was thought to be another clot.
“We questioned as to why I would have a blood clot anywhere at my age and with my health, especially in an artery. It just didn’t make any sense to us,” Brian said.
Upon further testing, Dr. Muhammad Aftab, a cardiac surgeon at the Anschutz, discovered the problem in Brian’s heart.
“There was just so much extensive vegetation which was covering all the valves,” Dr. Aftab said.
He believes a common kind of bacteria entered Brian’s bloodstream through a simple cut months or even years earlier. The bacteria caused an infection and it began growing like seaweed around the heart.
“Basically, when that valve would open and close, pieces of that vegetation were breaking off,” Brian said.
The suspected clots in Brian’s arm and leg were really pieces of the vegetation.
Doctors also discovered several pieces had traveled to his brain, causing several small strokes. Brian said that helped explain short-term memory loss, sudden chills and other cognitive difficulties he had been experiencing over the past few months.
Dr. Aftab recommended surgery to clear the infection away from the heart. He also warned the couple that without immediate treatment, a major cardiac event could be right around the corner.
“And the day after he said that, Brian had a heart attack,” Kelsey said.
“If you can help it, don’t have a heart attack, because it’s the worst,” Brian said.
They say they feel fortunate that Brian was already in the hospital when he suffered the heart attack. If they had been at home in Salida, it could have turned deadly.
“We’re not sure he would have survived. Honestly, because we’re so rural,” Kelsey said.
Although he developed bleeding on the brain as a complication, Brian recovered well enough from his heart attack to undergo the surgery to remove the vegetation from his heart.
The surgery ended up lasting around 14 hours, which is more than double what was originally planned. Doctors discovered more reconstruction was required than initially thought.
“As soon as we reached the root of the heart we saw [the vegetation] and the pus was coming out and we knew that this is really a very challenging condition,” Dr. Aftab said.
Kelsey says that surgery was one of the most difficult days to endure.
“It was a day when I could have lost him,” she said. “He just means so much. And I couldn’t imagine having to tell our girls that something awful had happened. I couldn’t imagine going back to my life without him by my side.”
At one point toward the end of the surgery, Brian’s heart grew too weak to pump blood on its own. Dr. Aftab had to literally take Brian’s heart and life in his hands and manually beat it to keep him alive.
“I had to do the open cardiac massage for a few minutes, probably two or three minutes,” Dr. Aftab said.
According to Dr. Aftab, one in five patients who undergo the same surgery will not survive. However, Brian pulled through. After recovering in the hospital, the couple headed home to Salida. They were home eight days when Brian’s heart gave out again.
“I sat down to watch some football with my dad and that’s when it stops again,” Brian said.
“And then he collapsed,” Kelsey said.
Brian didn’t have a pulse, so Brian’s parents began CPR in their home while Kelsey called 911. The EMTs that arrived were unable to get Brian’s heart started. According to Kelsey, they took him to the ER as a last-ditch effort.
“Brian had nearly an hour of CPR and 18 shocks,” she said. “I was prepared for them to say, 'We’re going to stop.' And then, all of the sudden, it was like, 'Oh, there’s a heartbeat.'"
Against all odds, Brian survived again.
“I just felt so lucky to be alive because I have so much to live for,” he said.
Brian seems to have fully recovered. He does not have signs of brain or organ damage even though he did not have a heartbeat for nearly an hour.
“Only 20 percent of patients after such a prolonged CPR survive. It’s certainly a miracle,” Dr. Aftab said.
It’s a miracle Brian says he cherishes every single day.
“I get to wake up and kiss my daughters every day and that’s a gift every day,” he said.