Cardiac challenges give life to heartwarming friendship
By BONNIE BOLDEN
Feb. 17, 2018
ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) — When Chris Donald and Dr. Brandon Lane Phillips were growing up, they had no idea that they'd find a friend, coworker and neighbor who shared not just similar interests but also survived the same ailment.
According to Phillips, they are one of the few — if not the only — physician-nurse teams caring for children with congenital heart disease who are CHD survivors themselves.
"No mom wants to hear that anything is wrong with their baby's heart," Phillips said.
But because of his own illness, he's able to connect with families and provide reassurance that a heart defect isn't a death sentence.
"We survive, and we live completely normal lives, and we're out in your community. We just require constant care. We'll always have to see a cardiologist," Donald said.
CHD is present at birth and affects 1 out of every 125 babies born. There are about 35 different types of defects.
Today, there are more adults living with CHD than children living with these health challenges.
Ochsner has an adult congenital cardiologist who sees patients in West Monroe, and Phillips and Donald are both treated locally. (Phillips also gets care at the Mayo Clinic.)
The pair also gets treatment from their colleagues. Phillips sees a doctor who was in the same residency program. "It's kind of like seeing my friend for my cardiology care here," he said.
Phillips completed his undergraduate education at Louisiana Tech University. Phillips went to Tulane University for medical school.
He had his open-heart surgeries at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Texas, and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Phillips completed his training in general pediatrics and pediatric cardiology at Texas Children's Hospital/Baylor College of Medicine and Mayo Clinic, respectively. He studied under doctors who had provided care for him since his childhood.
"I'm used to people who know me in and out kind of helping care for me," Phillips said.
Donald was Phillips' patient for years and was his nurse. "I have that reassurance that if anything happens, I have the best care, and I have people that will show up and be there for me."
As adult CHD patients age, a subspecialty in medicine has grown to meet the need. Some women become pregnant, and other patients are dealing with wear and tear due to age and other common heart problems in addition to maintaining hearts that have been surgically repaired.
Phillips said some families think once a child's heart has been "fixed," the need for maintenance is over, but that's not the case. Patients will come in with problems that should have been addressed years later through follow-up appointments.
Pediatric cardiologists are rare, Phillips said. Adult congenital cardiologists just started getting certificates about a year ago, Donald said.
"It's kind of like apples and oranges," Donald said of non-CHD hearts. Even once a heart is repaired, the patient will deal with it for the rest of their lives.
How they met
Donald grew up in South Texas and received her bachelor's degree in Nursing from Texas Tech University. She has had multiple open heart surgeries at Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, Texas Children's Hospital, and Mayo Clinic.
Phillips was the first other adult survivor she met.
"It was kind of that instant connection that we know what the other's been through," she said.
In 2012, Donald was working in Driscoll Children's Hospital, and one of the moms wouldn't visit her child in the NICU. The woman was overwhelmed by her child's CHD. Donald was talking to the cardiologist on call, who happened to be Phillips. She told him that she wanted the mother to know that kids facing heart defects can survive and thrive. She mentioned that she had a CHD, so he asked which one.
Donald has a hypoplastic right heart. A normal heart has four chambers, but Donald is missing the right ventricle.
Phillips has tetralogy of Fallot. It's one of the more common forms that can cause babies to be blue at birth because their blood doesn't have enough oxygen. It's caused by a combination of four defects.
The next question, Phillips said, was where did you have your repair. They found that they'd had the same surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota — Dr. Francisco Puga.
Phillips said shortly after that meeting another doctor asked him to take on an adult CHD patient. He didn't make the connection that it was Donald until she showed up in his clinic.
She quickly became involved in heart activities and became a cardiology clinic nurse, working with Phillips in 2014.
Coworkers, now neighbors
Phillips is originally from Jena, Louisiana, he wanted to move closer to his family, so he moved to northeastern Louisiana. He started at Ochsner for Children in West Monroe in September 2016.
Phillips had dinner with Donald and her husband the night before he left, and she was still grumpy with him for going.
"I was so upset that he originally abandoned us and moved to Louisiana, and then within nine months, I'm calling and telling him 'OK, I'm moving to West Monroe too," she said.
At first, Phillips thought it was a prank, but it wasn't.
Donald said her husband was looking for a job at a pharmacy school, and this community was the best option. He's now part of the University of Louisiana at Monroe faculty.
A nursing position at Ochsner with Phillips became available the same day she put in an offer on a house, which — incidentally — is two stop signs down on the same street as Phillips' home.
She started at Ochsner in the fall of 2017.
The two now share an office and take turns decorating each others home and cars with Texas Tech vs. Louisiana Tech gear.
"There a bit of a rivalry there," he said.