Local sports fan gets second chance at life

FLHS junior battles life-threatening heart condition


Forest Lake resident Blake Brunner does homework in the company of his dog, Ginger. (Photo by Kat Ladwig)

Kat Ladwig
Sports Editor

Seventeen-year-old Blake Brunner remembers a family dinner at Applebee’s during spring break this March-his last memory before his heart failed.

Never having health issues before, shock rippled Steve and Shannon Brunner when an aggressive infection attacked their oldest child’s heart a few days later. Despite two trips to the Cambridge Medical Center for what was thought to be pneumonia, Blake worsened.

Heart arrhymthmia and an elevated heart rate of 195 beats per minute caused alarm for the Cambridge medical professionals, and soon after, Blake’s heart failed to pump blood while his organs started to shut down. He was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart defect where the heart becomes enlarged and unable to contract properly. The progression of dilated cardiomyopathy can be rapid, and studies have found that 50 percent of deaths due to the condition occur within two years of diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In late March, the staff transported Blake by helicopter to the Children’s Medical Center in Minneapolis for emergency surgery. Through three open-heart surgeries and 18 days in a medically-induced coma at the attached Abbott Hospital’s intensive care unit, Steve said the waiting and not knowing was tough.

“Watching him being wheeled through the doors, through the halls and into Abbott hospital into a totally different hospital and totally different room, that was probably the scariest moment,” Steve said. “It was scary just not knowing what the future holds. Knowing that we could lose him.”

But Blake survived. After two months and a day in three different hospitals, Blake returned home in time to be confirmed on May 20, 2012.

Living on Batteries

Nearly eight months later, Blake sits in a brown, suede chair in his family room holding his Yorkshire poodle, Ginger, while surrounded by his siblings, Bryce, 12, Brody, 11, and Brenna, 5. Bryce said it was hard watching what Brunner had gone through, knowing he almost didn’t live.

“It was really saddening. And scary,” the 12-year-old said. “I almost didn’t have a big brother.”

Shannon, who is in charge of Blake’s medication intake, changing bandages and monitoring his overall health, went on to explain his roller coaster recovery process. Three weeks after returning home from his initial stay, Blake suffered from a blood clot in his LVAD as well as another surgery in July to put a defibrillator in place to control his heart rhythm. Blake also  re-learned to feed himself and to walk and talk after transferring to the Abbott medical center and Sister Kenny rehabilitation.

“I just remember bits and parts, the drugs made it hard to remember,” Blake said. “The drugs would make things seem like some things were completely different things.”

In addition to a variety of medication, the Forest Lake High School junior now lives with a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) inside his chest to assist his heart in pumping blood to the rest of his body. The LVAD is surgically implanted just below his heart, where a tube called a driveline passes through his skin to an outer power source to fuel his heart. During the day, Blake wears a “fanny pack” containing his outer machine, then attaches his driveline to a larger machine in his room each night before bed.

Though the LVAD is essential to keep Brunner’s heart working, it’s only a temporary fix until Blake receives a new heart or is deemed healthy enough to have the device removed after at least two years. Only time will tell what Blake needs to do to stay healthy.

Staying Positive

In his basement bedroom lined with posters of Wiz Khalifa, the Vikings and the 1991 World Series Champions Twins’ team, Blake shows off his den of video games and talks about sports and school.

Blake started playing soccer in kindergarten and had participated in almost every sport throughout his youth. When he made the decision to quit soccer to start working at McDonald’s in Forest Lake, it may have saved his life. According to the Mayo Clinic, dilated cardiomyopathy is a leading cause for heart transplants and the most common identifiable cause of sudden death in young athletes.

“If he would have gone played soccer last year, instead of going to work, he would have dropped dead on the field,” Shannon said. “It was just a blessing in disguise.”

While Blake is limited in what he can do physically, he is determined not to dwell on it.

“It’s pretty simple,” Blake said, smiling. “Just don’t do what normal people do. But that’s OK, I can be a professional video-gamer.”

While Brunner has a long list of restrictions, including no physical labor while working, no sports participation, staying close to home after high school and needing to stay completely dry at all times, he counters any negativity with the other activities he is able to do or another circumstance of chance.

“Even if I could play sports, I could have broken something, I could have become paralyzed like Jack Jablonski,” Blake said. “I just look at the other side of things.”

Brunner meets Jose Reyes of the Miami Marlins Jose Reyes this summer. The trip was made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. (Photo submitted)

One positive aspect of Blakes’s diagnosis was a chance to have a Make A Wish foundation dream fulfilled. An avid major league baseball fan, Blake and his family took a four-day vacation to Miami this summer to watch the Marlins play the Washington Nationals.

“It was awesome,” Blake said. “I got to meet Ozzie Guillen, Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes. I think my mom liked when we went to the beach better, but the game was a lot of fun.”

Even after meeting celebrities and professional athletes throughout his recovery, Blake said he wants to be viewed as a typical teenager.

“I just try to go through the day acting normal,” Blake. “I don’t want people to say ‘oh, there’s the kid that stands out.’ I’d rather just be normal, so that’s the way I go through my day.”

Blake’s Benefit

With the expense of more than two months of hospital bills, check-ups every four-to-six weeks, daily medication added to the necessity of at least one more open-heart surgery, the Brunners know their next medical bill will be a hefty one.

Friends of the family came together to coordinate an upcoming benefit to help with the financial cost of Blake’s treatment and recovery, and the Brunners are thankful and excited to see the show of support.

“I want people to see Blake and see how far he’s gotten based on where he was at, and give him encouragement and a sense of a job well done,” Steve said. “Just so he can have that encouragement to move on and keep moving on and be strong.”