Coming back from a ‘perfect storm’ of illnesses
Ken Brynildsen, 74, of Sandwich is the picture of health these days, but it was not so long ago that he was seriously ill with three life-threatening illnesses. He suffered from stage III colon cancer, kidney failure and a heart attack at different times over a period of seven years.
By his own account, Brynildsen was a very sick man and two of his many specialists, Peter Hopewood, MD, FACS a surgeon at Falmouth Hospital; and Melanie Greenan, MD a nephrologist with Cape Cod Hospital and Falmouth Hospital, agreed.
“He was very sick but it was the level of care that pulled him through,” said Dr. Hopewood. “Cape Cod Healthcare was able to provide what he needed. He had a lot of different specialists involved with his care; a lot of guardian angels.”
Dr. Greenan likened Brynildsen’s ordeal to the “perfect storm” of illnesses all coming together at the same time making him “very, very sick” and causing his kidneys to fail.
His slide into serious illness began with a diagnosis of colorectal cancer. In April 2008, a colonoscopy revealed a large malignant tumor in his colon requiring surgery.
“I’m a fairly logical person and I didn’t want to know the stage of my colon cancer, initially,” said Brynildsen. “I didn’t want to lose hope and my approach was, ‘I know I have cancer, it’s serious, and what do we do [about it]?’”
Dr. Hopewood performed the surgery, and biopsies confirmed it was stage III cancer. While the initial surgery was a success, he had a complication resulting in his first of four stays in the intensive care unit over the seven years. He had to have further surgery to create a temporary ileostomy, which gave his colon time to heal.
Dr. Hopewood reversed the ileostomy and re-connected his colon 14 months later.
Once Brynildsen healed from the initial surgery, he started 30 days of radiation followed by oral and IV chemotherapy treatments for seven months. A PET scan after he finished chemotherapy showed that he was cancer-free. The other good news was his prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a test that can indicate prostate cancer, which had been rising since 2000, dropped to normal after his treatment for the colon cancer.
Kidney Failure and Dialysis
Meanwhile, he was having ongoing issues with his bladder, and his kidneys began to fail. Dr. Greenan had been monitoring Brynildsen’s kidney function during his cancer treatment.
“He developed an infection and was in and out of the hospital several times,” said Dr. Greenan. “His kidneys were blocked from scar tissue and it was the combination of the colon cancer and treatment that led to the kidney disease. His situation was very unique, however, and not a usual occurrence after treatment for cancer.”
Brynildsen’s kidney function dropped to four to five percent function and he was feeling poorly, explained Dr. Greenan. She decided to start him on dialysis in 2011, three times a week for about four hours. This treatment performs the functions of the kidneys by removing toxins and maintaining safe levels of potassium, sodium and bicarbonate.
While it was a life-saving and serious decision, Brynildsen, who is a glass half-full kind of guy, viewed dialysis as an opportunity rather than an imposition.
“I called the dialysis room the ‘spa,’” he said. “I sat in a recliner – six people were running around keeping me comfortable – I slept, I didn’t have to answer the phone, I watched TV, I read a lot of books and I started to write a book about my life as a crafter.”
During all of his treatments, Brynildsen continued to go to the gym because it’s his sanctuary and routine.
“I’ve lifted weights since I was 16 and was a competitive body builder in my 40s,” he said. “I work my entire body including my core, three times a week, using bar bells, dumb bells and weight machines.”
One afternoon in 2015, he felt a slight discomfort in his chest.
“I had gone to the gym, had dialysis and started to feel funny in my chest, so I went to the hospital. Blood tests showed I was having a heart attack.”
Three of his coronary arteries were blocked – 100 percent, 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively – requiring triple coronary bypass surgery, followed by a stay at a rehabilitation hospital.
An Amazing Accomplishment
Last spring, Brynildsen shocked even his doctors when he was able to successfully come off dialysis. His kidney function returned to more than 20 percent, which is well over the point that people need dialysis, according to Dr. Greenan.
“It was after his heart attack that his numbers started to improve, it was very strange,” she said.
Brynildsen credits going to the gym, which has kept him physically strong, his medical team and his faith for surviving his illnesses.
He said he has replaced dialysis with substitute teaching and enjoys teaching language arts, math and science to pre-school through sixth-grade students. He’s back to doing photography, arts and crafts, and writes, sporadically.
He is also enjoying his time with his wife, six children and eight grandchildren.
His advice to those going through difficult times is: “Face your fears but don’t give in to them. Nobody is ever in this alone.”
“I have the greatest respect and gratitude to the medical people who took care of me. I didn’t suffer, they kept me out of pain, they kept me comfortable, they were kind and they were professional,” said Brynildsen. “I’ve survived so many things, life is a joy and a gift.”