Harley Brooks

Harley Brooks

Dr. Harley Brooks recently got a new heart at Advocate Christ Medical Center—and Advocate Trinity Hospital is now getting its old one back.

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Harley Calvin Brooks, MD, was expected back at work at Advocate Trinity Hospital in October 15, 2012, following an extended weekend in Florida to celebrate his 43rd birthday. A type of physician known as an urgent hospitalist, Dr. Brooks specializes in caring for the most seriously ill patients and spends much of his time in the intensive care unit. But he had to call in sick that day—for only the second time in his 12 years on staff—because he was hospitalized in critical condition himself.

His colleagues had noticed he hadn’t seemed quite himself lately. “Calvin runs from floor to floor all day long, and he has a loud voice that carries,” says emergency physician Nicole Mourillon, MD, one of Dr. Brooks’s closest friends at the hospital. “But he started getting quiet. He’d pop up in the ER, and I didn’t hear him coming—that was a real red flag.”

Dr. Brooks had observed some red flags of his own. Over the summer he noticed he was sweating profusely, but he chalked that up to hot and humid weather. He’d feel full and bloated after eating very little. He’d also started to get winded easily, and to feel a burning in his legs when he walked upstairs—unusual for someone who works out five days a week. “I thought maybe it was stress,” he says. “I’d been working a lot of overtime shifts.”

By the time he got to Florida, even minimal exertion was too much for him. “Key West is level, and I couldn’t walk more than two or three blocks at a time,” he says. “I started checking my heart rate frequently, and it was very elevated—120 to 130 beats per minute—even after waking from a dead sleep.”

No longer able to ignore his symptoms, Dr. Brooks called a cardiologist friend from the airport in Florida and asked him to refer him to the “best electrophysiology guys in Chicago.” Upon arriving at O’Hare, he took a cab straight to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure caused by a congenital heart defect he didn’t know he had. Five days later he was at Advocate Christ Medical Center awaiting a heart transplant.

Trinity Hospital’s Heart

A native of Nashville who attended college and medical school in the South, Dr. Brooks found his way north to Chicago and Trinity Hospital after doing his residency in Peoria. “I just fell in love with it here,” he says. The feelings have been mutual. “He’s a wonderful person,” says Dr. Mourillon. “He gives and gives and expects nothing in return. There’s a sense of security when he’s around. You know he’s got your back. Not only do people love and trust him, but he provides excellent patient care. He is integral to the everyday workings of the hospital.”

Trinity Hospital’s vice president of medical management agrees. “Dr. Brooks set the foundation we’re building our urgent hospitalist program on,” says Dianna Grant, MD. “He’s proactively excellent, responsive, accountable and very respectful—to patients and their families and to the nurses on the unit.”

So the news that Dr. Brooks needed a heart transplant hit his hospital family hard. “To think we might not have him anymore sent everyone into prayer mode,” says Amber Woody, who was a patient of his before coming to work as a secretary in the intensive care unit. “He is truly the backbone of Trinity Hospital.”

Christ Medical Center’s Expertise

When Dr. Brooks was first transferred to Christ Medical Center, his cardiologists were initially hopeful that his heart failure was an acute case that might respond to treatment. “The onset was so sudden, and he didn’t have symptoms like swelling in the legs and fluid in the lungs that typically accompany chronic heart failure,” says Gabriel Sayer, MD. “In acute cases, we can sometimes treat with medication or a mechanical heart pump to help the heart recover.”

But further examination revealed that Dr. Brooks’s disease had a longer duration and was more severe than previously suspected: His heart was quite enlarged, it featured prominent muscle bands—suggesting a condition known as LV noncompaction—and his kidneys were affected, as well. Determining that a more permanent solution was required, his cardiologists added him to the heart transplant list, and decided to manage him with medications while he waited instead of implanting a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) as a temporary measure. “The average wait for a heart transplant is six months to a year, but we thought he might get one sooner because he has a less common blood type that would enable his body to accept a heart that most people ahead of him on the list would reject,” explains Dr. Sayer.

Dr. Brooks spent the next several weeks in the adult surgical heart unit (ASHU), where he hosted a steady stream of well-wishers from Trinity Hospital bearing care packages full of books, Sudoku puzzles, gummy bears, clementine oranges and peanut butter. Then, on November 20, one month after he was put on the transplant list, he learned a heart that had just become available through the national organ donation registry was a potential match for him. “That Tuesday was a very emotional day, sad and happy,” Dr. Brooks says. “Someone had to lose their life for me to get a heart.”

Shortly after 5 pm, an eight-person surgical team took Dr. Brooks from the ASHU to the operating room and started prepping him for surgery. The heart arrived between 8:30 and 9 pm; the transplant operation was successfully completed before midnight.

Coming Home

When Amber Woody received a text message that Dr. Brooks was OK, she broke down crying with relief.

For her part, Dr. Mourillon always had faith that Dr. Brooks would be fine. “He had a great medical team and over a thousand people praying for him—through his family and friends, the hospital, his residency program, churches and Facebook,” she says. “And he had faith, too.”

Less than two weeks after his surgery, on December 2, Dr. Brooks was able to return home for the first time since before his trip to Florida. He started coming back to Trinity Hospital for meetings in January and is gradually working his way back up to full time.

Dr. Grant believes that just as Dr. Brooks’s experience caring for seriously ill patients and their families helped him through his own illness, his recent hospitalization will help him be an even more compassionate physician than he has always been. “His spirit was always good because he’d had those kinds of conversations with people before,” she says. “And now here’s a guy who went to the door of end of life himself.”

First published: Spring 2013