Homage to a Hero: Dr. Brian Reemtsen

I’m usually not at a loss for words (as this blog would indicate), yet I’ve found it very hard to compose a tribute to the key member of Rudy’s team.  There’s a tinge of pathos in saying that my son has the greatest heart surgeon in the world only because it assumes as a given that his condition demands it.  I am sure no one here at UCLA would be offended by my saying that I would much rather Rudy have no need of any surgeon; but as that’s not our reality, it’s difficult to express the deep gratitude we have for Dr. Brian Reemtsen.


When we first learned of Rudy’s diagnosis of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome we got several recommendations to seek treatment at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), but we discovered our insurance network was contracted with UCLA.  While we were willing to fight to any extent necessary to get Rudy the right care we also realized the wisdom in reserving our energy for the most important battles, so we decided to do some due diligence and investigate UCLA—at least to have some grounds on which to base an appeal.


As I’ve already written, the initial responsiveness of Gary Satou and Dan Levi served as a remarkable introduction to the team at UCLA.  Both spoke no ill of CHLA but also laid out what UCLA could offer—most importantly an expert surgeon, Dr. Brian Reemtsen, to do this very intricate surgery.  Just months before, Dr. Reemtsen had come from CHLA to build a top-notch Pediatric Cardio-Thoracic Surgery program in the new Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA.  They had high praise and said that they would speak with Dr. Reemtsen as he would certainly want to consult with us.  This willingness was driven home the next day when Susan, his assistant, called to let me know that Drs. Satou and Levi had already spoken to Dr. Reemsten and he instructed her to call immediately to again affirm that he would make time to see us whenever we could get to LA.


Our first meeting with Dr. Reemtsen in September was no let down from the hopes we had built up.  He took the time for a very thorough conversation, entertained any and every question and was straightforward about the challenging diagnosis we were confronting.  He was empathetic, realistic and hopeful; able to put things into understandable terms and patiently allowed us to digest information and repeated himself if we asked.


We were forewarned of some the personalities we might encounter when dealing with specialists and surgeons who deal with such complicated diagnoses.  We were warned that the greater the expertise, the more aloofness one might have to contend with.  We were briefed on skilled surgeons who excel in the operating room, but might be less than comforting at bedside (on the rare occasions they make an appearance).  I’m not sure what experiences fed these stereotypes, but meeting with Dr. Reemtsen quickly made it clear they didn’t apply here.


I spoke of the very strong recommendations we received for CHLA and Dr. Reemtsen took no offense at this, having nothing bad to say about his former employer and even encouraging us to investigate both options.  In making the case for UCLA, he held forth the promise that he would be hands-on involved in Rudy’s care from delivery to discharge.  His arrangement here is such that this is his only hospital and practice so he’s here every day and can remain very involved with his cases (contrasted to a specialized surgeon who might have patients in multiple hospitals and only pass through on an occasional basis).  He would be by the bed several times a day and constantly interacting with the treatment team in every development and decision.  He would be honest about our circumstances, communicate clearly and not give false hope.


It was a very encouraging conversation, at the end of which he pulled out his business card, wrote his e-mail address and cell phone number on the back, and made it clear that we should have no hang-ups about using it for any reason whatsoever.  No answering service.  No automated phone trees.  Straight to him.  I never ended up calling it but remember a few worried evenings in my office, as I tried to take in all the unknowns that lay before us, where simply picking up that card and turning it over to look at that number brought a sense of comfort and reassurance.  We were in good hands.


At the outset, I don’t think I would have been able to articulate an itemized list of qualities I would want my son’s cardio-thoracic surgeon to have.  As Rudy’s heart would be very small and would require very steady hands, I remember checking Dr. Reemtsen’s during that first meeting to make sure all the fingers were there and that they didn’t shake excessively.  Overall, I noted no obvious involuntary ticks but did wonder if it would be possible for me to hide in his closet and jump out just to see that he didn’t startle uncontrollably.  Other than that I didn’t have any sophisticated rubrics for evaluation.  Other doctors spoke highly of him and we wouldn’t expect UCLA to hire anyone with blemishes on their record (but I did check), so the main criteria for us to choose our expert had little to do with an educated analysis of his skills, but simply by how we felt about him.


While arrogance is not an attractive trait, when it comes to choosing a heart surgeon neither is too much humility.  You want self-confidence; a person who is well aware of their competencies and does not question them.  While the general population strives for well-roundedness, I prefer my heart surgeon to be somewhat out of balance—a bit too dedicated to work, unable to thwart perfectionist drives, never able to make enough time for hobbies, incapable of leaving work on time or stay away on a weekend.  Someone who will always remember that he’s dealing with MY baby—and that my world has come to a stop.  Someone who realizes that my medical training ended with high school biology, but I’ll be comforted to know relevant information in language I can understand.


I trust the number of interactions with Dr. Reemtsen documented in this blog communicates implicitly what is taking me a number of passes to state explicitly.  He is a person that exudes competence; who I suspect doesn’t give much time to things he can’t excel at.  He is purposeful and doesn’t give indication that much time in his day gets wasted, but has time to stop and be friendly.  He wears a mantel of importance, but carries himself without much fanfare.  His attention to his patients knows few bounds as demonstrated by the evening and weekend visits and the late-night phone check-ins I’ve overheard.


If the guy who holds my son’s heart in his hands demanded I call him “Spartacus”, I’d have no problem doing it, yet I love the way he introduces himself as “Brian”.  As isolating as life can be here in the CTICU addressing our key source of comfort as “Dr. Reemtsen” would keep him far more distant than we’d like.


I make no pretense that I’m motivated largely by my own self-interest in this whole journey.  I want the best outcome.  I want Rudy to have the best.  But this comes at a cost, and I’d be delusional if I thought I was shouldering more than a fraction of this.  In his devotion to our son, Brian has made our burden his (along with so many others here at UCLA) in ways that we never could repay.  We’d like to think we know what’s best for our kids and provide everything for them, but this experience has shown our knowledge and competencies to be shockingly finite.  So thank you, Brian, for having the expertise and skill we could never muster.


I also realize that others pay a cost for Brian’s round-the-clock devotion to Rudy.  On several occasions, we’ve heard Brian speak of the Reemtsen ladies.  As their husband’s and father’s commitment to my son undoubtedly makes for absences from them, we are so grateful.  May they realize now and in the future the profound hope he brings to families like ours through what he does each day.


Dr. Reemtsen checking on Rudy
Dr. Reemtsen checking on Rudy

16 thoughts on “Homage to a Hero: Dr. Brian Reemtsen

  1. Thanks Brian, er, Dr. Reemsten, for taking care of little Rudy! It’s a comfort to know that Rolf holds you in such high esteem–he is a discriminating guy that doesn’t throw out disingenuous compliments. Rudy is blessed to have such a qualified surgeon caring for him and its obvious that your care extends beyond Rudy to Rolf and Trish as well.

    From all of us out here in the Heartland, thanks alot!!!

    PS – Thanks, too, to the Reemsten ladies!!

  2. So well said Rolf. As someone who has had those very hands fix my own heart and heard the same unhurried tone and care in his voice I could not have written a better tribute. I am not only grateful that I received his treatment but am also thankful little Rudy fell into his hands. It not only gives me hope and confidence that Rudy will recover but also it has allowed me to have a special bond with your family. Your strength is inspirational and I look forward to the day where Rudy and the rest of the clan gets to SCUBA dive! My little Morgan asks to check in on Rudy everyday and we concentrate on sending positive thoughts for his recovery. Go Rudy!

  3. Well, Rolf, you did it again as tears are streaking down my cheeks. I so enjoy reading your updates about Rudy, not only the updates themselves, but the way you compose them…you are a gifted writer! As both a Bruin and a patron (for Nicki) of CHLA, I initially questioned your decision to go to UCLA for Rudy’s care as we have been so blessed by the care we have received at CHLA, but through the course of your family’s journey, it has become so apparent that God has Rudy in the right place at the right time with the right care. We will continue to pray for Rudy AND for Dr. Brian (and his family). Thanks for keeping us in the loop.

  4. My name is Lisa Knight and I am the executive director and co founder. a summer camp for children born with Heart disease. You story is so amazing. This year we are honoring Dr Reemtsen at our big fund raiser black tie gala. I want to know if it be OK to use the picture of Rudy and him for our marketing?

    Please contact me at lisa.knight@campdelcorazon.org

  5. Today is june 1st 2009 and i just got home from the hospital where Dr. Reemtsen performed a vsd/asd repair surgery on my 4 and a half month old daughter kayla, and i have to say Dr. Reemtsen was my light at the darkest moment of my life. He saved my daughters life, if you ever read this Dr please know that my family and I are very thankful.

    The Alvarez Family

  6. Thank you Rolf for posting this story..Having heard about Dr. Reemtsen, not knowing anything about him, only that he’s just performed heart surgery yesterday on my one month old nephew KAINOA M…..I decided to look him up…that’s when I found this story. I am SO GLAD I FOUND IT because not only did it bring tears to my eyes but a NEW FOUND HOPE that EVERYTHING IS GONNA BE ALIGHT…..I’M AT PEACE IN MY LITTLE TOWN (WAIANAE) IN HAWAII… KNOWING THAT MY NEPHEW WAS IN THE HANDS OF A PROFESSIONAL AND CARING FATHER!!

  7. Thank you for your candid evaluation of Dr. Reemtsen. I am in the process of searching out a surgeon for my 17 year old daughter and this Doctor was one of two my daughter’s pediatric cardiologist recommended. I think you have swayed my decision and I also have an email in to Dr. Dan Levi seeking his opinion as well. Thanks again and I pray your Rudy is doing well. God Bless you and your family, Laurie

  8. My 12 yr son has been referred to Dr. Reemtsen for heart surgery. I was searching the web to get some info about him and found your blog. This gives me great hope. It is good to know that my child will be in good hands. Thank you 🙂

    1. Dr. Reemtsen also performed open heart surgery on my then seventeen year old daughter, two years ago. I too searched the web and found this blog which gave me great hope and comfort as I was given the name of two very good surgeons and did not know which one to go with. In meeting with Dr. Reemtsen down at UCLA and having him explain in great detail, as well as using a whiteboard to draw exactly what he was talking about, I was sure we were with the right Doctor. He talked directly to my daughter and answered any and all questions we both had. He is an amazing doctor and I thank God we are now on the other side of a very successful surgery. I will pray for you and your son. I think it may be as hard on us as parents as it is on out children. God Bless you and your family, Laurie

  9. This comment is well overdue but my son was admitted to UCLA (Mattel’s Children’s Hospital) in September 2012 due to heart failure. He had an undiagnosed heart defect and at 7 weeks old, according to the ER docs, his heart was “the size of Connecticut.” We didn’t have the luxury of screening doctors and hospitals, but as I anxiously combed the web for any information I could find, I found this blog and was very comforted by your words about Dr. Reemtsen. Dr. Reemtsen performed a TAPVR correction on my son and my little guy is now a thriving 2 year old with a pretty cool scar. Thank you so much for your comfort in a dark time and I could not be more enthusiastic about echoing your sentiments regarding Dr. Reemtsen and Dr. Levi. God bless!!

  10. Thank you for posting this. Our 5 week old daughter is diagnosed with a heart defect called tetralogy of fallot and will need surgery at 4-6 months of age. I have become somewhat obsessed with researching the surgeons that have been recommended to me, and am glad I found a first hand account of this surgeon. We are actually scheduled to meet with him soon. Your story gives me comfort that she our daughter will be in good hands. Hope your son is doing well!

  11. Proud to know Brian as I attended high school with him. He is truly a great person. Well written blog.

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