When it comes to close family and friends, 22-year-old Butler University senior Kyle Beery hit a trifecta. His family—parents Don and Patti, siblings Clayton, Katie and Karley—call Saugatuck, Michigan home, where they have a network of close friends among the tight-knit resort communities that line the banks of Lake Michigan. At Butler, his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers are friends who’ve become family.
When Kyle faced a life-threatening heart condition in January 2014, that trifecta paid off in ways he never expected, showing him the far-reaching impact close relationships can have.
After Christmas, Kyle returned to Butler early; fraternities and sororities were conducting new member recruitment. He was tired; heavy snow at home had meant constant shoveling, but this was a different tired. He’d felt it when he was 17, before he underwent open-heart surgery at University of Michigan’s C.S Mott Children’s Hospital to receive a pulmonary valve in his heart.
Kyle was born with tetralogy of fallot, which is a combination of four heart defects that results in oxygen-poor blood being pumped to the body instead of the lungs. His surgery as a teenager was his second; the first was a temporary repair when he was only a week old.
Kyle says growing up with a heart defect wasn’t an issue.
“I lived a normal life with no limitations other than not being able to play contact sports, so I played baseball,” he says. “I didn’t have anything to compare it to, so as far as I was concerned, my health was fine.”
That January he discovered why he was so tired; his health—and heart—weren’t fine.
“It’s a tradition at Butler that all the fraternity and sorority members run to the middle of campus on Bid Day to find out where everyone pledged. When I ran out there, my heart started racing and wouldn’t slow down,” remembers Kyle. “Luckily, I was with my good friends who knew my health history and they called an ambulance.”
As paramedics rushed Kyle to Indiana University Hospital North Hospital, his heart was racing at 290 beats per minute, triple the normal rate of 70-100 beats per minute.
“The paramedic told me they were going to have to shock my heart to bring the heart rate down,” says Kyle. “He gave me a reindeer Beanie Baby to squeeze while they did it. Luckily, it was over fast and my heart rate slowed to a normal rate.”
Kyle's support shows up
At the hospital, Kyle learned he’d experienced ventricular tachycardia, a potentially life-threatening heart rate. He was transferred to Indiana University Methodist Hospital and underwent tests that revealed another issue—the pulmonary valve he’d received four years earlier was leaking and needed to be replaced.
Kyle and his parents talked with cardiologist W. Aaron Kay, MD, and cardiac surgeon John Brown, MD—they wanted to know as much as they could before Kyle had surgery.
“Both doctors were awesome,” says Kyle. “There was something calming about Dr. Kay; he was so easy to work with. Dr. Brown was also calming and very knowledgeable. We found out he studied with the doctor who had done my other two surgeries, so we were sold.”
Though he admits it was disappointing that he needed surgery, Kyle knew it had to be done. A steady stream of visitors helped take his mind off what was ahead.
“My fraternity brothers all came down in shifts,” Kyle says. “I don’t know if the nurses were getting fed up with me having 20 visitors a day, but I had a heck of a support system.”
Among them was Drew Hutson, one of Kyle’s best buddies who visited one night with Kyle and his dad.
“He told us he had just ordered 200 red wristbands that said #BeeryBrave and FullStrength and was going to sell them on campus to raise money,” says Kyle. (“Full Strength” is a hockey term used when a player comes back after being out for a penalty.) “He gave us a bunch to take home because people in Saugatuck wanted them, too. I was humbled.”
Two days later, Kyle underwent surgery to successfully replace the valve. He also saw cardiac electrophysiologist John Miller, MD, who implanted a defibrillator, which detects an abnormal heartbeat and administers a shock to restore normal rhythm. Thanks to a series of complex ablations that Dr. Miller also performed to correct Kyle’s life-threatening heart rhythm problems, the defibrillator has not had to shock Kyle’s heart since it was implanted.
Although he had to sit out a semester of school after the procedures, Kyle says it was actually “kind of nice.”
“I got myself healthy,” he says. “I did cardiac rehab for a couple of months and went on walks to keep active. I realized after the surgery how bad I must have felt. Now, I feel good and have more energy.”
Kyle's support extends their reach
Kyle saw more good come out of his experience, thanks to ways his family, friends and community connected. His mom, Patti, and a friend whose sorority supports the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women, met while visiting Kyle and ended up brainstorming ideas about how to honor a close friend of Patti’s who had died of a heart attack the day of Kyle’s surgery.
Soon after, one of those ideas took root after Patti struck up a conversation with a woman while getting her hair cut. The woman was a member of the Wes Leonard Heart Team, an organization formed to honor a basketball player from neighboring Fennville High School who collapsed and died due to an enlarged heart in 2011 after hitting a game-winning basket.
Those conversations led to an old-fashioned cake walk in September 2014 in honor of Patti’s friend. Funds from the cake walk and the #BeeryBrave wristbands raised enough money to purchase six Automated Electronic Defibrillators (AEDs) for Saugatuck-area high schools.
People and events have left Kyle feeling humbled—and grateful.
“When I drive by IU Health Methodist, I say, ‘There’s my second home.’ It was a great experience. And the support from my family, Michigan communities, Butler and the fraternity … it’s unbelievable.”