Jim Braun, 61, has so many reasons to celebrate Father's Day on Sunday, among them: his three children; his long marriage to the love of his life, Donette; having good health; and welcoming on Wednesday a new grandson to join the other two grandchildren.
But four years ago, Father's Day for the Fort Wayne man was a different story. Braun's mother had died unexpectedly just a few weeks earlier.
“I had a hard time dealing with the loss of my mother," he said. "I was spiritually mad.”
He recalls walking out into a pasture close to his work place, Wood Technologies in Grabill, lying down and asking God, “Why?” Reciting the 23rd Psalm from the Bible brought comfort.
It was not long after, he said, when God made clear to him how his mother's death may have saved his own. A heart condition that killed his mother spurred Donette, who works at Parkview Regional Medical Center, to encourage her husband to get a heart scan that checks for calcium plaque in the coronary arteries. The $50 scan at Parkview is called HeartSmart CT.
Braun's scan revealed a high calcium score, which meant he had atherosclerosis, the clogging in arteries that leads to a heart attack. Also seen on the scan was an aneurysm, or bulging, of a portion of the aorta near the aortic valve. That valve is crucial for maintaining the heart's pumping action. Fifty percent of his valve was blocked.
Aneurysms often go undetected. They can rupture and kill in seconds.
The scan also detected he had a heart murmur and that his aortic valve was malformed due to a birth defect.
It was hard for Braun to wrap his head around the news, particularly because at the time, “I was running about 70 to 80 miles a week.” Braun had taken up running at age 50. He was slim, did not smoke or drink alcohol, and in all other ways appeared to be the picture of health.
The noninvasive heart scan is a 10-15 minute type of X-ray called computerized tomography, which has been widely used for *10 years. It captures detailed pictures of the heart's arteries. Radiologists study the scans and assign a calcium score based on the amount of calcified plaque seen.
“Any score other than 0 states with 100 percent accuracy that a patient has coronary artery disease,” Dr. Mark O'Shaughnessy, who is with Parkview Heart Institute, said in an email. The higher the calcium score, the greater the heart attack risk.
“There is ample data on the predictive value on calcium scoring, and it is currently recommended in American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association guidelines for consideration in risk factor evaluation,” O'Shaughnessy said.
Between the time Braun had the heart scan and the time he received the results, he ran a half marathon, unaware a time bomb was ticking inside. Up until then, “I felt like my body was physically able to conquer anything.” As he went through additional tests, the stress of everything came to a head one day while getting blood drawn at Parkview.
“Emotionally, it all came out in that lab room,” he said. The lab technician listened compassionately, then said words Braun will never forget: “'Somebody up there is in the front row rooting for you.'”
It was a pivotal point in accepting both his mother's death and his own heart problems.
Braun met with Parkview cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Douglas Gray, who explained tests results. Most sobering was the seriousness of the aneurysm. Gray told him even if he was on the operating table, his chest already opened, if the aneurysm burst, “'I would have 30 seconds to save you.'”
Despite all the bad news, Gray was reassuring. Because Braun was otherwise healthy and was physically active, his prognosis was excellent. Gray told Braun to enjoy the rest of that summer, and surgery was scheduled for September. In the meantime, Gray put a halt to Braun running.
Braun had surgery on Sept. 13, 2013. He wasted no time in doing what had to be done to get back to work — and to running. Though he wasn't allowed to run in the hospital hallways, “I got out a couple days early because I was a traffic hazard. I was taking too many laps a day,” he said.
Braun has convinced other family members to get a heart scan. Because it's considered a screening test, most insurers don't cover it, O'Shaughnessy said. However, Braun is quick to point out the $50 he spent for Parkview's test can easily be spent on one nice dinner out.
These days, Braun is again running marathons. When he ties those running shoes, it's a reminder of his blessings and the role his mother played in saving his life.
“My mother's passing created this opportunity for me to go on,” he said.
His post-surgery opportunities have included walking his youngest daughter down the aisle at her wedding and seeing her graduate from college with honors.
This Father's Day, Braun looks forward to a very special gift from that same daughter, his grandson, who will be 4 days old on Sunday.
“Had I not had the (heart) scan," he said, "I might not have met him.”
Jennifer L. Boen is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne who writes frequently about health and medicine. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.