Brian Starr standing next to road bike on wooded pathShortly after his 50th birthday, Brian Starr contracted a virus that would change his life forever. “I ended up with a virus in my heart, and had an autoimmune response to it,” says Brian. “Basically, my immune system attempted to reject my own heart."

Brian’s heart was severely damaged and unable to support his active lifestyle. This made physical activities Brian enjoyed, like golfing and biking, increasingly difficult.

Comprehensive care, close to home

Fortunately for Brian, he was already working with the multifaceted care team at Providence Spokane Heart Institute, enabling him to receive world-class treatment for his condition without traveling outside of Spokane.

“The transplant program was started 30 years ago by Dr. Timothy Icenogle with a goal of using leading-edge technology and medicine to provide the safest and best care as close to the patient’s home as possible,” says Andrew Coletti, M.D., program and medical director. “Instead of getting one cardiologist they get a multidisciplinary team to provide one of the most comprehensive holistic medical experiences that a person can get."

While the heart transplant program at Providence is also renowned for its expertise in mechanical technology, Brian was not a candidate for a mechanical device. His only option was to wait for a suitable donor heart.

Coming to terms with the transplant

Even though Brian had faith in the process and his caregivers, there was a lot on his mind. “I was going through the struggle of knowing that someone else was going to end up dying for me to get a heart,” he says. “And how do I feel about that?”

“The doctors, psychologist and my wife helped me through that process,” adds Brian. “I began to recognize there was a donor out there and that situation was separate from my needs. We talked through the common things that transplant patients work through on the mental side of this experience.”

“This is an environment where you provide more personalized care,” says Dr. Coletti. “Our team of cardiologists, psychologists, nutritionists, and nurses is able to focus on what we each do best because we have a division of labor and expertise that enables us to address all patient needs.”

Based on Brian’s body size and blood type, he was told the average wait time for a heart was 90 days. Fortunately for Brian and his family, that gift came in just two weeks.

A family approach to care

Brian jokes that his transplant team was kind of like an entourage. “The doc and assistant. The transplant coordinator. The person doing recording and the pharmacist. There was an entire team in the room to attend to me. It was quite a scene.”

What makes this program unique is that it was built on the premise that the transplant team is really your adopted family,” When you form a covenant to put someone’s heart into another person’s chest, that is a medical marriage. This is a covenant we take very seriously. --Dr. Coletti

Dr. Coletti adds that this relationship is radically different than the relationship patients have with any other doctor. “It requires you to really know your patients well. As medicine continues to get more impersonal, we’re going the opposite direction. We are the Marcus Welby of specialized medicine.”

“For such an extraordinary situation, you couldn’t ask for a better patient experience,” says Brian. “The nurses, doctors, floor managers and other staff involved, they got to know me personally and were constantly there to make sure my stay was pleasant. Everyone on that team—they were just fantastic and caring.”

Getting back to living

Today, just a year since his procedure, Brian describes his outlook in life as “fantastic.” “It’s huge. I get to watch my granddaughter grow up. My son and daughter-in-law continue to be great parents. Getting to see my son grow up with a wonderful life, it’s just very joyous. And I’m able to get back to living, which I haven’t done in a few years.”

Brian’s ongoing care routine consists of taking long walks, eating a healthy diet, and attending follow-up appointments to monitor his progression. “Everything has been going fantastic and I’ve had no rejection whatsoever,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.”

While Brian is now going longer periods between checkups, he will remain connected to the care team at Providence. “We follow patients from the time they develop advanced failure, to implantation of a mechanical heart and ultimately to transplantation,” adds Dr. Coletti. “Following a patient’s heart transplant, we are their primary transplant care provider.”

Brian was reunited with his transplant team as well as other transplant recipients at Providence Spokane Heart Institute during the Walk of Gratitude in early 2020. “It was amazing to see how many of us there were,” he says. “That was the biggest surprise. It was also an incredible experience for me as a patient going back to say, ‘here’s what your care did.’”

Brian hopes that sharing his personal success story will impact people in two ways. First, by reducing anxiety for those headed towards a transplant, and second, by inspiring more people to become organ donors. 

“I’ve always been an organ donor and I will continue to be a donor,” Brian says. “It’s one of the greatest gifts that can be given and received.”

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