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HIGH PROFILE: Dr. Brian L. Reemtsen and his medical team at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Heart Institute operate on hearts of newborns successfully

by Werner Trieschmann | July 10, 2022 at 9:55 a.m.
“You are only as strong as your weakest link. The team here at Arkansas Children’s is exceptionally talented and it makes a difference. Bad things can happen during and after the surgery. If we are not good in the ICU for instance, then we could be in trouble. I couldn’t be prouder.” - Brian Reemtsen (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)


Go to your refrigerator and find a strawberry. Don't look for one of those whopper strawberries that occasionally lands in your shopping cart. You're looking for a smaller strawberry and, once you have found it, place it on a flat surface.

Be sure to find a surface with a lot of light. Why? You're going to operate on this strawberry. What else? Oh yeah, set a clock because you don't have a lot of time.

Replace the strawberry with a human heart of a newborn and you will have at least some idea of what Dr. Brian Reemtsen faces at least once or twice a day in an operating room. Reemtsen is chief of congenital cardiac surgery and director of the Arkansas Children's Hospital Heart Institute.

That cardiac surgery -- being able to stop and fix a beating heart -- is common in our day and age shouldn't distract from how it is also a miracle. Reemtsen and his colleagues are showing the miraculous a thing or two. In fiscal year 2021 alone, Arkansas Children's Heart Institute had a 100% survivorship rate -- a rare milestone for any program. Every one of the Heart Institute's 232 surgical patients -- including tiniest newborns and adults with congenital heart disease --survived.

Even now, Reemtsen takes pride in what he and his medical team at Arkansas Children's accomplished.

"None of the programs I know or have heard about have had a 100% survival rate," Reemtsen says. "Some of the surgeries we do have an average of a 25% mortality rate. You are only as strong as your weakest link. The team here at Arkansas Children's is exceptionally talented and it makes a difference. Bad things can happen during and after the surgery. If we are not good in the ICU for instance, then we could be in trouble. I couldn't be prouder."

In 2017, Reemtsen was recruited to Arkansas Children's from Los Angeles' Mattel Children's Hospital and the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles. His resume is dotted with prestigious fellowships including at the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.

During his time in Arkansas, Reemtsen has worked to beef up Arkansas Children's Heart Institute with endowed chairs, including one focusing on cardiovascular research. He also holds the titles of professor of surgery and section chief in the division of congenital cardiac surgery for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. These duties come along with his work as a surgeon who operates regularly.

Reemtsen's skills in the operating room are significant.

"After completing his training, he practiced with us here," says Dr. Winfield Wells, cardiothoracic surgeon at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. "We were looking to bring in a junior associate and he was on our radar early. The primary thing in our sub-specialty of cardiothoracic surgeon is technical excellence. Newborns can be some of the most challenging cases. Few and far between can bring that kind of ability to the table. [Brian] is one of those few."

BOATING TO SCHOOL

Born in the late '60s in Flint, Mich., Reemtsen grew up in the small, nearby community of Lake Fenton. He has two older sisters. His father was in the car business, eventually owning multiple car dealerships. His mother was a homemaker and then later worked in banking.

The earliest memories for Reemtsen involve the lake that was next to his family's first house. The body of water captured the imagination of the young boy.

"I just remember that neighborhood and activities we did on the lake," Reemtsen says. "I was 3 or 4."

The school that Reemtsen attended at Lake Fenton was so small that it had graduating classes of 60 students. The tight-knit town led to a permissive atmosphere. Even when he was in elementary school, he could travel around on his own.

Cold northern Michigan turned the lake into a hockey rink for months at a time, but when it was warm, Reemtsen would take advantage of the lake in another way.

"When I was 7 or 8, we had a fishing boat I could drive," Reemtsen remembers. "I was driving my boat to go to school. It was too far to take my bike. I could get across the lake and park my boat at a dock that the dentist had next to the school. I wouldn't allow my kids to do that today."

Reemtsen was an active child, not one to spend a lot of time inside or watching TV. He channeled his energy into various sports and it wasn't enough for him just to play one.

"I played every imaginable sport growing up. I played football, hockey and ran track. In the summers, which didn't last very long there, I played junior golf. I was a water skier. I was a big outdoors kid. I did some hunting but mostly I played outdoor sports."

Reemtsen's ability on a football field would eventually earn him recognition as an all-state linebacker and then a ticket to a coveted spot on the UCLA team. Even so, hockey has a special appeal to Reemtsen.

"There's something fun about playing [hockey]," Reemtsen says. "When I was a medical resident, I played in this men's beer league. Pick-up games are a lot of fun in hockey. I used to say that you had to be a sadomasochist to enjoy football practices. But I looked forward to hockey practices."

Those numerous sport practices didn't pull down Reemtsen's grades, which were consistently good enough to keep him in the top of his class.

"I was a good student," Reemtsen notes. "I went through the whole high school barely lower than second in the class. I didn't have to study a ton until I got in medical school. It came pretty easy to me."

FROM BRRR TO BRUIN

A change from a sleepy, cold Michigan lake town to the concrete-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see of Los Angeles is about as big a change as one can imagine. Nonetheless, circumstances took Reemtsen from Lake Fenton to L.A. in a couple of short years.

For his senior year, Reemtsen attended a larger high school in a town close to Lake Fenton.

"I was the new kid in town," Reemtsen says. "It was a big football school and my team was really successful. We lost in the state final. It was a great year."

An even bigger move came next as Reemtsen's father had to go to California to run a car dealership there. Reemtsen ended up sending film of his football exploits to UCLA. After a year at Albion College, Reemtsen found himself enrolled at UCLA and playing for the Division 1 Bruins.

UCLA was another level of football than what the high school linebacker had experienced.

"UCLA's home stadium is the Rose Bowl," Reemtsen says. "So you are playing for thousands and thousands of people. I played mostly special teams. My first year was Troy Aikman's last year. That was one of the best teams that UCLA ever had."

Reemtsen couldn't help but recognize that his being 6'1" and 220 pounds put him on the low end of the scale with his teammates.

"It was humbling to see the athletic prowess. One of my first practices with the team, I was getting my ankle taped in the locker room. Next to me there was a guy I didn't know getting an ice bath. He started to get out of the bath and it was like he just kept going. It was the biggest guy I had ever seen. That was Ken Norton Jr."

There were many players at UCLA who would end up playing professional football in the NFL. Reemtsen knew even as he was suiting up that his football life was going to be over once he graduated from college.

"I didn't accomplish what I wanted in terms of getting playing time [at UCLA]," Reemtsen says. "But it was a good experience. I had my eye on going to medical school."

To this day, he can't quite pinpoint the moment he decided he wanted to be a doctor.

"My mother says I was talking about it from when I was really young," Reemtsen says. "I was a competitive kid. I always took to the science classes and had a great interest in anatomy. I first thought I would be a sports-type surgeon."

A NEW HOGs FAN

After graduating from UCLA, Reemtsen went from one coast to the other. He would pick up his medical degree from New York Medical College. Reemtsen admits that college football took significant time away to study for classes at UCLA but he was able to handle the load. The information Reemtsen had to absorb in med school was a dramatic increase from UCLA.

"As I tell the students here, the subject matter in medical school isn't particularly difficult but the volume of it makes it a full-time job," Reemtsen says. "The work required fostered my attitude to be aggressive about studying. I have always been a hard worker. I believe the best doctors aren't necessarily the brilliant minds but the hard workers."

New York is a special place for Reemtsen for another reason -- it is where he met his wife, Noel.

"We met while working out in a gym," Reemtsen says.

The attraction?

"She was a collegiate gymnast in Vermont. Let me just say that she is genetically gifted."

Married during his residency, the Reemtsens would go on to have three girls. Margot Reemtsen, a star on the soccer field, received All-State honors while at Pulaski Academy and is now a featured player for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

"I've become a rabid Arkansas Razorback fan," Reemtsen says. "My daughter playing soccer for Arkansas helps. We are into Hogs football. It's easy to be a big Arkansas fan."

Leaving Los Angeles for Little Rock as Reemtsen and his family chose to do was a big decision. Los Angeles had its own challenges.

"In L.A. you don't plan for the weather but you plan for traffic," Reemtsen says. "There were a million things to do in Los Angeles but we could never do them because the congestion was so bad."

Over five years in the state, Reemtsen happily notes that he and his family are "Arkansans now." The admiration from Arkansans is mutual.

"[Reemtsen] is a rock star but also so approachable," says Bobby Taylor, vice-president of Shelby Taylor Trucking and volunteer for Arkansas Children's Hospital. "He is as real as you get. He can get on your level and talk to you. We became instant friends. I think he was concerned about getting his wife and three girls to move from Los Angeles to Arkansas. But they love it here."

Reemtsen and his wife will be hosting Arkansas Children's fundraiser Miracle Ball this year on Dec. 10.

"Noel is doing more of the heavy lifting than I am," Reemtsen says. "The ball is so important to what we do. I can see it on the ground how important philanthropy is to our hospital. The hospital is one Arkansas can be proud of and, of course, we want it to stay that way."

SELF PORTRAIT

Brian Reemtsen

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: April 30, 1968, Flint, Mich.

• EVERY MORNING I MUST HAVE: Iced decaf Americano.

• ADVICE I RECEIVED AT A YOUNG AGE THAT'S STAYED WITH ME: Expect the best, plan for the worst.

• A TRAIT A GOOD SURGEON MUST HAVE: The ability to make difficult decisions in difficult situations.

• MY FAVORITE ATHLETE: Steve Yzerman [a Canadian former professional ice hockey player currently serving as executive vice president and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings].

• IF I COULD GET ON A PLANE AND GO ANYWHERE RIGHT NOW, I'D GO TO: The French Riviera

• THE FOUR GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Walt Lillhei [the American surgeon who pioneered open-heart surgery], Steve Yzerman, Abraham Lincoln and Jesus.

• ONE WORD THAT SUMS ME UP: Capable


  photo  “One of my first practices with the team, I was getting my ankle taped in the locker room. Next to me there was a guy I didn’t know getting an ice bath. He started to get out of the bath and it was like he just kept going. It was the biggest guy I had ever seen. That was Ken Norton Jr.” - Brian Reemtsen (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

 
 


Print Headline: Dr. Brian L. Reemtsen

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