Awarded cardiac survivor pushing himself for more

MARY KATE McGOWAN Bruce Balchin, center, pushes himself through Self Regional Healthcare's Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation program after winning SC Association of Cardiac Rehab and Pulmonary Rehabilitation's Patient of the Year award. From left to right are, Dianne Corley, Nell Jones, Susan Balchin, Bruce Balchin, Susan Cooper, Tomasz Kluszczynski and Debbie Alvarez.

On the night of Aug. 11, 2013, Bruce Balchin did not respond to one of his wife Susan's questions after spending a day at The Children's Museum in Greenville with their grandson.

Susan found him slumped in a chair at their home with his chin to his chest. He had gone into full cardiac arrest and stopped breathing for a minute and a half before first responders rushed in to revive him. But that was not all. Bruce also suffered a stroke Aug. 12.

"I didn't hear his voice for a month," Susan said. "That was the beginning of the journey."

Not knowing what was wrong with her husband, Susan saw Bruce intubated 30 minutes after arriving at Self Regional Healthcare.

"Things just kept spiraling down," she said. "Every day for 28 days I had received bad news."

Bruce had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. With severe blockages, his heart could not be stinted open. He had a trachea, as he was not able to get off the ventilator, and he was suffering with a 9mm kidney stone on top of that.

Bruce remained sedated in a coma for a month, during which he had his 59th birthday.

On Sept. 10, a longtime friend visited Bruce and asked, "What are you doing?"

Bruce opened his eyes and answered, "Just laying here."

Without a clue what happened, Bruce began to improve, but he still has severe blockages.

"There were so many things that we had to relearn," Susan said.

A month later, Bruce walked out of Greenwood Regional Rehab after learning how to walk again. He could no longer use his right side as it was impaired, and he lost number perception. He could not understand aspects of numbers including gas prices, time schedules and change from a financial transaction.

"He went in there (GRR) on a stretcher, and he walked out," Susan, who works in human resources at Self Regional, said.

But the reverie was short-lived as Bruce returned to the hospital Nov. 14, with congestive heart failure.

After being told Bruce was not a candidate for heart surgery before because there were no viable areas to attach to his heart, Rollo Villaeral of Piedmont Cardiology wanted to perform one more test with a viability study.

"They did that test, and there were areas they could attach to," Susan said through tears.

On Dec. 16, Bruce underwent quadruple bypass surgery after being scheduled for a double bypass. Four days later, he got a defibrillator on his right, impaired side.

Two days after that, Bruce came home. That day was Susan's birthday.

January 2014 began what Susan called "A Year of Healing" when the Balchins put the good things in to get the good things out while they paid attention to everything while letting "nothing be small."

Three weeks into post-op, Bruce was released to drive to and from cardiac rehab at Self Regional on Jan. 15.

Bruce, whose father also had a heart attack at 58, said they timed how long it took him to walk three laps around the track on his first day of rehab.

"When they said that, it was like 300 miles to me, but I did it," he said.

Two weeks ago, Bruce walked 8 miles total in addition to his normal exercise regimen.

"It wasn't an easy journey. It's still a journey. I'm still living and breathing," Bruce said.

Although Bruce was unable to return to work, his hard-working nature is prevalent in his rehab work.

"It was an instillment from childhood," Susan said.

Bruce comes to cardiac rehab three days a week and has only missed two days -- with good reason. Instead of only staying for one hour like most patients, Bruce spends three hours exercising.

"I consider this my job," Bruce said.

On off days, Bruce walks the Lander track, and the Balchins sometimes walk the Lander University campus.

Nell Jones, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation supervisor, nominated Bruce for the South Carolina Association of Cardiac Rehab and Pulmonary Rehabilitation patient of the year in fall 2014. This April, the Balchins traveled to Charleston to accept the award, which Bruce considers a huge milestone.

Jones said Bruce has been determined to improve because that is who he is.

"Even with his (right, impaired) arm, he has required very little assistance," she said. "He's progressed himself."

Jones said Bruce has improved greater than ever expected, and that it is a miracle he can walk much less exercise.

"You don't see many people who have been through what he went through in here. Much less do the amount of exercise he does," Jones said.

Cardiopulmonary rehabilitation is different than an exercise program. Jones said nurses and medical professionals monitor patients and their heart rates at cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and will run to help a patient if there is any trouble. Cardiac rehab also includes a maintenance program where patients self-monitor their heart rate and other factors. If there is any trouble, Jones said a doctor can operate in five minutes, and the nurses have critical care experience.

"That is a safety feature that I like," Bruce said.

Bruce's recovery also extended outside physical exercise. Bruce, who worked for Greenwood County for 20 years before his illness, is a woodworker by hobby and has used his hobby as a form of recovery.

At first, Susan said he had no interest in returning to his shop, but his sharpness of mind improved after going to cardio rehab. Susan said he was becoming clearer and clearer, and he returned to his shop in early summer 2014.

But everything in Bruce's woodworking shop was arranged for a right-hander. His left hand is now his dominant hand. Susan said he had to touch everything and re-familiarize himself with the space as he rearranged his shop to accommodate his left hand.

One of the first woodworking projects Bruce completed after his health ordeal was a communion set for Self Regional.

"It's absolutely amazing," Susan said in noting her husband's woodwork is much like it was before he became ill.

To help with Bruce's struggle with number perception, Susan said a tablet has been a lifesaver with voice commands and applications that help with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

"She was my backbone through all this," Bruce said of his wife.

Bruce continues to exercise at cardio rehab three days a week and can now move his right arm at about head level. He said he is working his right arm while walking and hopes to regain use of it.

Bruce said he has "spurts" when he remembers how to do something.

"I can't explain it, but I have brainwaves," he said. "I might be a rocket scientist and just not know it yet."