Published on March 13, 2017
Mason Briese has been through a lot since birth, but you would never know it by the way he wears his big smile. From two days old, there were complications—Mason’s tiny heart wasn’t working as it should.
But, this “little man” is not so little anymore! Back in 2005, we met the Briese family when Mason was just four. Today, he is a 15 year old eighth grader who enjoys bowling, playing angry birds and watching sports with his dad.
Read on to find out how Mason’s story began.
Note: The following piece was originally published in fall 2005.
If it weren’t for the oxygen tank, the Brieses might be any young family in the southwest suburbs. Loving parents. A 6-year-old daughter who mugs for cameras. A son, barely 4, who wears a little-man plaid shirt and boots. But the son’s oxygen tank gives them away: They’ve been through the longest four years they could have imagined surviving. If they look untroubled, that’s because their hope has survived, too.
The oxygen tank is the last outward vestige of the struggle to keep Mason Briese alive. Born with three separate congenital heart defects, the little boy has spent too many months of his first four years inside the Pediatric Surgical Heart Unit at Advocate Children’s Hospital. But the need for oxygen is a light load to carry, considering what Mason has lived through.
When Mason was only 2 days old, his parents, Kristin and Brian Briese were told their son had a heart murmur. His diagnosis didn’t mean anything to them at first.
“I had no idea what the doctors were talking about,” Kristin said. “I wasn’t even good in high school biology. It was the most frightening thing, not knowing what was wrong.”
But understanding the problem was even worse. Tests showed that the major vessels in Mason’s heart were transposed—attached to the wrong ventricles—which created two loops of blood circulation that didn’t work together. With little communication between two chambers of Mason’s heart, his body wasn’t receiving the oxygen it needed. Mason also had a hole in the wall of his heart, which actually helped him survive until his transposed vessels could be mended, and a narrow pulmonary valve, which forced his tiny heart to work even harder. Mason needed help, fast.
In the Right Place
What the Briese family didn’t know was that they were in the best place to give Mason a fighting chance. The Pediatric Surgical Heart Unit (PSHU) at Advocate Children’s Hospital is staffed with leading experts in pediatric cardiology and cardiac surgery from Advocate Children’s Heart Institute, as well as a nursing staff dedicated exclusively to the care of young heart patients. The unit, combined with the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), cares for hundreds of the most high-risk cases of congenital and acquired heart disease in children each year. Along with providing superior cardiac care, Advocate Children’s Hospital hosts a national center for research and development, which gives our patients access to the latest advances in cardiac care.
Philanthropy plays a key role in providing excellent care to our patients and their families. Gifts from former patients, patient families and members of the community have built comfortable, welcoming facilities, brought in state-of-the-art technology and provided extra healing touches that ease the burden families with sick children face. The unit is currently raising funds to increase its capabilities: Every year, nearly 400 children are turned away from lack of space to care for them. With the help of charitable gifts, the PSHU/PICU will soon increase its bed space by nearly 40 percent.
When the Brieses started researching Mason’s options, they were surprised to learn how lucky they were. They had found Advocate Children’s Hospital through a chance encounter with cardiologist E. Phillip Ow, MD. And now Mason’s surgeon was Michel Ilbawi, MD, a world-renowned pediatric cardiac surgeon with who performs more than 500 surgeries each year.
“We realized we were completely in the best place possible,” Kristin said. “Having Ilbawi as Mason’s surgeon fell into our laps.”
The First Try
The first step was to open Mason’s pulmonary artery with a shunt. He was five weeks old. Kristin remembered being extremely nervous, but even more afterward when she took him home three days later.
“I had to ask myself all the time, ‘Is this normal baby stuff or is it his heart?’ It puts you on edge,” she said.
In retrospect, though, Mason’s first year was a cake walk. At 15 months of age, Mason was ready for his next surgery. “That’s when life changed,” Kristin said.
Mason had his heart defect corrected with surgery, but then needed assistance from a machine to breathe. The complicated surgery proved too taxing for his tiny body. His heart began to fail. His kidneys shut down. After two weeks, surgeons were forced to reverse his surgery, just to give him a chance to live.
Mason spent seven months in the PSHU before he was well enough to go home. Although his heart still needed correction, now he needed time to recover and prepare for a second attempt at surgery. Kidney problems put him in the hospital several times over the next year. But in 2004, he hardly had to enter Advocate Children’s Hospital at all. As 2005 approached and their son grew stronger, the Brieses knew it was time for big decisions again.
‘Fight, Fight, Fight’
As the Brieses researched which surgery would give Mason the best opportunity, all signs pointed again to Dr. Ilbawi and Advocate Children’s Hospital.
“Hands down, he is the most talented man I’ve ever met, and he knows Mason,” said Kristin of Ilbawi. “He’s held Mason’s heart in his hands. It was comforting to be back at Advocate Children’s Hospital. Everyone remembered Mason. Dr. Ilbawi called him ‘Buddy.’”
Because of Mason’s prior complications from surgery, this time Ilbawi performed more straightforward procedures that would give Mason’s heart a better chance. The end result: Mason has a two-chambered heart.
Also not good at high school biology? Most people have four. Instead of the right side of his heart receiving blood from the body and sending it to the lungs, and the left side of the heart receiving blood from the lungs and pumping it back out to the body, Mason’s system is more of a one-way street. “The blood from the body flows to the lungs, lungs to the heart, heart to the body,” explained Kristin Briese. “He’s more limited, but this surgery was less complicated.”
But Mason was still weak. Mason continued to fight through infections and complications with his kidney dialysis, which stopped working. He spent lots of time at Advocate Children’s Hospital, while his parents watched with dread.
“You don’t want to let yourself think this, but at what point do you say he’s fought enough and let go?” Kristin said. “You just want to fight, fight, fight. But the bottom line is, you don’t want him to suffer.”
The Brieses weren’t the only ones weighing Mason’s odds. One of his physicians spoke to her pastor about Mason as she struggled with what to do for him. A favorite nurse who became a family friend, Angela Baisler, RN, didn’t think he would make it. “But that kid is amazing,” she said. “He has defied the odds so many times. He’s a strong little man.”
Today, that strong little man is finally home with his family. He’s tethered to the oxygen tank as he begins to re-learn how to walk, but little else keeps him down. He cruises the furniture, the walls, grasps at pant legs, his sister, Chloe, anything he can reach. He wants to play. He loves puzzles, numbers and shapes. When he hears music, he starts to dance. “In so many ways, he’s a normal 4-year-old,” his mother said.
The family’s hope now is that time will be on Mason’s side, allowing him to get stronger, allowing his kidneys to start working again. If they don’t, Mason may face a kidney transplant down the road. But his mom is living her days one at a time.
“My biggest lesson is that while I love him and I’ll do all I can for him, I’m also going to enjoy him,” she said. “I won’t look back and say ‘If only.’ You don’t know what life is going to hand you. Nobody knows. I’m like that with both kids now. I truly believe that love gets you through it all.”