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Swimmer gets a weight off his heart

Brace yourself. That's what Robert Brau had to do.

Like many teenagers he did the teeth with wires thing.

He's also doing the steel bar through the rib cage.

Brau is a senior swimmer with five letters who just completed his final season with the Cardinals by swimming at the state meet in the consolation heat of the 400-freestyle relay.

This was 10 months after surgery to insert a thin bar to separate his heart from his sternum.

Robert was born with a deformity of the chest wall, sometimes called funnel chest, but known in medical literature as Pectus Excavatum.

It's not rare. Robert knows of at least two others in the high school who have had the corrective procedure, one of them a teammate on the swim team. I had a high-school football teammate with a "cupped" chest and our own son was born with it, though he hasn't needed surgery.

Until his mid-teens, Robert gave little thought to his cosmetic deformity.

At swim practice, he had difficulty taking full breaths and despite all his training he felt "out-of-shape." There was numbness in his limbs and more rarely chest pains.

Another family noticed his sunken chest and asked Robert's parents, Terry and Donna, if he had been screened for pectus excavatum.

During his junior swim season, the numbness became more noticeable, particularly after swimming the 500 yard-freestyle or following an especially strenuous workout.

When preliminary tests were inconclusive, the Braus asked to be referred to a specialist. At the Mayo Clinic in early May, 2010, pediatric surgeon Dr. Christopher Moir said that the X-rays revealed full-blown "pectus" that would require surgery.

"My heart was indented by the inward arc of my sternum and would grow increasingly worse as I continued to grow," Robert wrote in an email. "It would be life-threatening at worst and life limiting at best, without corrective surgery."

Robert had surgery on May 3, 2010.

"Surgeons inserted a (curved) stainless steel bar beneath the deformity in my chest. When rotated into place, it forced the sternum and ribs into the proper position, taking pressure off my heart and lungs."

A DVD of the surgery given to the Braus showed his heart beating up against the bone before surgery, but now unrestricted after the insertion of the bar."

He was released from the hospital three days later and spent 10 more days at home resting and recovering.

After several weeks, he could breathe deeply as he got comfortable with the idea of having a brace in his chest.

"I was never really too self-conscious about the shape of my chest," he wrote. "I was even comfortable joking about it until it started affecting my daily life. But now I feel so much better and so much more confident."

This swim season he dropped chunks of time in both the 100 freestyle and the individual medley; in the 500 freestyle, he cut from 6:00 to 5:28. He plans to continue to swim competitively in college.

The steel bar can be removed after two years in an outpatient procedure. Terry Brau said new information he was given stated that the bar can be left in place as long as it is problem free.

Today, the Braus leave for Hawaii in a 147-person delegation of Cardinal musicians, choir members and chaperones to perform at Pearl Harbor.

"Will Robert set off the metal detectors at the airport?" I asked Terry, who is the Willmar High School band director.

"We were told it's not an issue, but I guess we'll test that theory."

CLC state champs

Cardinals' wrestler Nathanial Swoyer is one of four individual state champions in the winter season from the 10 schools in the Central Lakes Conference. Wrestler Mitch Bengtson of St. Cloud Apollo won his third state title, swimmer Mike Hurley of Fergus Falls won both the Class A 200 individual medley and the 100 freestyle while Cameron Hyde of Sartell is the 50 freestyle state champ. Fergus Falls won the Class A state title in swimming and diving and the Sartell Dance Line won the High Kick championship.

On the fly

Cardinals senior Grant Schow says he plans to attend the University of South Dakota at Vermilion where he will enter their art program and, perhaps, go out for the football team. Schow rushed for 1,123 in 10 games. That was the most by a Willmar running back since Doug Doering, now a Cardinals assistant coach, ran for a school-record1,283 yards in 12 games,

Schow, Gabe Amon and Landon Peterson were voted by section hockey coaches to the all-senior Section 6A/6AA team that will play in the Ted Brill Great 8, sponsored by USA Hockey, at the Wakota Arena in South St. Paul April 1-3. The Section 6 all-stars will be coached by Willmar alumni Lee Smith of Eden Prairie and Dan Tollefson, the Cardinals head coach. Tollefson said he plans to take notes while coaching with Smith, who is four years his senior. Smith's teams have won two of the last three Class AA titles.

Hans Horning finished his second year as head coach of the wrestling team at two-year-old East Ridge High School in Woodbury. The Raptors went 4-19 and got one wrestler to state. That improved on a 1-30 inaugural season which Horning started with just three wrestlers with experience, none of them seniors. Hans' father, John, coached the Cardinals from 1974-81.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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