Family counting blessings after unanticipated medical emergency

DAVID PHILLIPS/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE First National Bank makes a donation to the Hanenberger family of “Denim Dollars,” which are put in a jar each week when employees wear jeans to work on casual Fridays. The money collected over the year is donated to a different cause at the end of each year. From left are Makayla Nauman and Carla Fortney of the bank, Alicia holding Rayna, Griffin, Brian and Kylie Hanenberger, and Donna Conlan, Kelcy Mitchell and Jason Runck of First National Bank.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“Looking back at Thanksgiving night, I ‘see it’ – I see all the signs of a heart attack.  But at the time, we had no idea – a healthy 35-year-old guy — and a heart attack never crossed our minds,” related Spring Valley resident Alicia (Rathbun) Hanenberger, speaking of the night that her husband, Brian Hanenberger, had a heart attack that changed the family’s future and has shown them the generosity of their community through the donations and assistance they’ve received since. 

“The next morning, I went to work as normal, and he started his morning like any other,” she said.  “I told him he should go in and get checked just to see what they say.  Little did we know that the next couple days would be filled with tests, scans, bloodwork, more information than we could process and all that would end in him needing a triple bypass because of 90 percent blockage in his left coronary artery.  There were lots of tears and tough discussions that you don’t think you will have to have as a young couple.” 

Alicia’s sister, Amanda Schmidt, posted a more detailed account on Hanenberger’s GoFundMe page. She noted that Brian’s two brief episodes of chest pain were short-lived, so he went on as normal.  The next day when he went to Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, bloodwork and an EKG showed his heart was still under stress.  He was admitted to a cardiac floor and soon transferred to the cardiac ICU after a scope. 

“Monday morning, he was taken back for surgery – which lasted six hours – having to stop his heart for over an hour,” she wrote.  “All went well.  Since surgery, pain management has been a real struggle.  Setting new goals every day and hoping he can be released to go home, soon…it is unknown when Brian can be discharged from the hospital, when he will be returning back to work, be able to drive, etc.  Between pick-up and drop-off arrangements for their two children in daycare, and also for their preteen getting to and from school and her activities, Alicia taking off work to be at the hospital, it is physically, emotionally and financially stressful.”

Spring Valley native Alicia, whose mother is Brenda Stier, shared that their young family – Dover native Brian, her daughter Kylie, 11, and their son Griffin, 3, and daughter, Rayna, 7 months – had been busy doing what families do together when everything in their world changed. 

“Having young kids was the hardest part emotionally for both of us during all of this.  Knowing the risks of the surgery, it was hard the night before the surgery to have the kids visit and say ‘goodbye’ to Dad for the night,” she said.  “The day of surgery seemed to take forever.  We said our goodbyes at 9:30 a.m. and I didn’t see him again until 8 p.m.  There are many ups and downs the first couple of days, which is hard to watch when you feel helpless, but just being able to sit and hold his hand was comforting.

“It was a quick reality check after surgery when you think that just days before, your husband is wrestling with your son at home and a couple days later is hooked up to monitors and IVs and his ‘goal’ for the day is to transfer from the bed to chair and sit as tolerated.  It is hard to watch someone you love struggle, but I had to be strong for him so he wouldn’t worry and could focus on getting himself better.”  

Mindful parenting factored into the Hanenbergers’ ordeal because they wanted to carefully navigate bringing their children to the hospital, but not wanting them to be scared or sad. 

“One of the worst nights was when we left the hospital the night before Brian’s surgery, and as we walked down the Mayo hallways, Griffin asked why Daddy had to stay and couldn’t come home with us, and when I would get home from the hospital at night, it was hard to explain why Dad wasn’t there to tuck him in at night,” she said.

Upon her first posting, Schmidt asked that anyone who wished to donate to help the family stay afloat during their time of crisis consider donating to their GoFundMe account to offset medical expenses, parking ramp fees and post-physical therapy visits, as well as pray for the family to thrive.  Approximately a week later, on Dec. 6, she posted that Brian would be released to go home and that there would be recovery ahead. 

“Many people that have major surgeries on a hip or knee go to a therapy wing somewhere to help prepare them for ‘going home.’  It’s crazy to imagine that someone having major heart surgery just does a few days in cardiac rehab and goes straight home and then does outpatient therapy.  Brian does not have a set release date yet, but it will be soon,” she wrote.  “One of those ‘Yippee!  Wait…what?’ moments.  Alicia took the kids to visit Brian last night.  In rehab, they have him up more, walking more and doing more things for himself – all great.  More activity loosens up chest congestion – also great.  Coughing because of it – also great, but very painful.  And all the activity makes him more tired, and the pain meds just don’t keep up.  There is no way to explain that to an almost 3-year-old that is excited to see his daddy.” 

Brian was released from the hospital to spend December at home, but Stier said he was readmitted after some complications. He was then released in time for Christmas at home and is still doing cardiac rehabilitation, is unable to return to work, cannot lift over 10 pounds and has spent quite a lot of time reading food nutrition labels to sort out which foods have low sodium and low cholesterol to suit his new diet, she noted.

 His plan with doctors now is to have 36 cardiac rehab appointments, said Alicia.  He has completed five some weeks, some weeks it’s two, and some weeks it’s three times a week, depending on other appointments.  Since it was a heart attack, the family meets with various departments for mental health over the next couple months. 

“Along with the physical side of getting your body and heart stronger also comes an emotional rollercoaster from the surgery, recovery, the unknowns and scare of what happened,” she said. “Along with diet changes, he will be on some medications for the rest of his life and have regular yearly or every six months checkups.  But the surgeons are confident that the bypass will allow him to live a long life.” 

He had to remain somewhat quarantined for his health’s sake, but he’ll eventually be able to have visitors and to do more with their children as he gains strength. 

“The messages and e-mails he received with prayers, kind words and words of encouragement were very uplifting and played a large role in him keeping a positive attitude during the difficult times,” Alicia said.  “He did not get to go to large gatherings during Christmas because of being readmitted to the hospital with bronchitis/pneumonia shortly before Christmas.  Since being home with the nice weather, Brian has been able to go on a couple walks outside with Griffin by his side, which made them both very happy.  He still can’t lift the kids or carry them for another couple of weeks – he is still on a 10-pound weight restriction, but hopefully, by February, he can pick up Rayna.  Every day is a new day filled with ups and downs, but he is thankful to be home, and a positive attitude is helping him in his recovery.”  

Brian has, of course, had to take time off work, and so has Alicia. Brian is a master plumber at Tonna Mechanical in Rochester, and if rehab and things continue to improve as planned, he is looking at returning in March.  Alicia was working with Park Place Motors for the past nine years.  Prior to the heart attack, she had decided to change career paths and accepted a position at The Salvation Army as a case aide and administrative assistant and has been at her new job for two weeks. 

“I left my previous job a few days sooner than planned and started my new job a few days later than planned so that I could be at the hospital during the day and home with kids at night those first couple weeks,” she said.

Alicia cited that she and her husband were so busy focusing on their gratitude for his survival that they overlooked the financial toll that his heart condition will have on their family. 

“It’s sometimes hard to accept help.  When you’re in the hospital, just happy to have another day with your loved ones, you don’t think much about the future,” she said.  “You just take each day as it comes.  It wasn’t until someone said ‘This isn’t going to go away tomorrow’ that it sunk in that we didn’t know what the future held, and after a few people had asked how they could help or if there was a GoFundMe page, a family member set up the page for those wanting to help us with the unknown expenses.  As with most people’s insurance policies, Brian’s started over again Jan. 1, so new deductibles start over again.  Being a young, healthy guy, he did not have short- or long-term disability in place for missing work, so the funds will be going towards medical expenses and other household bills.”

She remarked that staying in southeastern Minnesota has proven to be especially beneficial as they raise their family and learn what life is going to be after bypass surgery.  Donations of family and friends’ time and money have made all the difference for the Hanenbergers, as they’ve had to manage their household on new terms. 

In addition to Schmidt starting a GoFundMe account, employees of First National Bank in Spring Valley donated “Denim Dollars” – a total of $290 collected for the privilege of wearing jeans to work on Fridays – to the family to lend a hand with getting by while times are challenging. 

“Both of us being from small towns, we love that we have so many family members that live close by – most of our immediate family lives within 30 miles of us,” she said.  “When something like this happens, you really appreciate having family by your side.  We are so thankful for the donation from First National and all of our Spring Valley and Wykoff friends and family for their thoughts and prayers during the last month.  In addition to the donations, we appreciate the thoughts and prayers that everyone has sent our way.  Some others have made meals for us, gave us meat they won at a meat raffle, helped shovel snow, and helped with our kids at moment’s notice.  So many people have helped us get through this last month, we can’t thank them all enough for their love and support through all of this.”   

Alicia offered newfound insight on taking care of oneself. 

“Health problems can happen to anyone.  Talk with your families about possible issues and make your doctors aware so you can receive proper tests and screenings that might otherwise go undetected,” she said.  “In Brian’s case, heart disease and high cholesterol run in his family on both sides.  Prior to the chest pain on Thanksgiving, he had no other health problems, signs or warnings.  He was a healthy 35-year-old who just didn’t feel 100 percent, and next thing we know, they are saying ‘heart attack’ and how lucky he was that he came in and is still here with us to fix this.  This health scare made us appreciate things that we had lost sight of and was a reminder to never take the time with our family for granted.”