Mike Brennan’s favorite sound once may have been the invigorating roar of the ocean he often heard during his 15 mile runs on Newport’s Ocean Drive.
Or perhaps Brennan, the longtime Portsmouth multi-sport coach, loved hearing the swoosh of a basketball hitting nothing but net or the shriek of a whistle followed by loud cheers after a game-winning touchdown.
But there is no doubt what his new favorite sound is – a smooth helicopter landing. He heard it frequently over the last several weeks during his 53-day stay at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital.
“A helicopter landing will be my favorite sound forever,” said Brennan. “It is the sound of somebody getting what they need… the sound of an organ being delivered, the sound of somebody being medevaced in to get the care they need. The helicopter sound became synonymous with my journey. I knew one day that helicopter was going to be for me.“
On April 2, the helicopter landed carrying a new heart for Brennan.
Let’s start from the beginning – 16 years ago when Brennan was in his early 30s. An athlete who would often run 15 miles and then head to play in an over 30 basketball league, he began to not feel well. Test results eventually indicated he had an autoimmune disease. His heart was damaged. Very damaged.
“I never questioned why it was me,” said Brennan. “I just stayed positive.”
Nearly two decades and 11 heart surgeries later, Brennan can now do a victory lap. On April 3 he received a new heart.
“I feel phenomenal,” said Brennan, a physical education teacher at Thompson Middle School who turned 49 on May 7. “I wasn’t ready to leave my three amazing kids and my incredible wife Margie, who is my best friend.”
He has given his heart to his students, athletes, friends and family for more than two decades and the Aquidneck Island community has stepped up and given theirs to the Brennan family in return. Friends and family recently lined the streets of Portsmouth showing their support as he returned home just nine days after his heart transplant. Several fundraisers, meal trains and GoFundMe pages have been set up to support the Brennan family.
The Portsmouth High assistant football and basketball coach is humbled. The overwhelming assistance he is receiving is not surprising. Brennan has always shown his community nothing but positivity. Even as his health worsened over the years, he never let on how sick he was.
“I knew how sick I was, but I never really told many people. I always tried to keep two things separate. I am a father, a husband, a coach and a teacher. I am a mentor. I have a responsibility to a lot of people. I conditioned myself to grind through physical pain to be able to do the things I wanted to do and be the man and person I wanted to be. In the end I couldn’t keep them separate. They started to overlap.”
— Margie brennan (@Margiebrennan44) April 9, 2021
In February when he went to Boston to see his doctor Dr. Neal K. Lakdawala – who he calls “the best doctor in the world” -Brennan was told he wouldn’t be leaving the hospital without a new heart.
Was he scared? He remained positive.
“My room faced Dana Faber. I’d look out the window watching parents walk in with their kids,” said Brennan. “I was lying here with a dying heart going, ‘I am not doing that right now. That’s about the hardest thing that dad is doing right now…. carrying that little girl into that hospital.’ I don’t know that I could play that out the way I am playing this out. That’s been my mindset.“
Brennan prepared for the life-changing surgery by walking laps around the hospital to build up his strength. Laps became miles.
“I just wanted to be as strong as I could be for the surgery,” he said.
The players on the teams he has coached gave him strength as well. He watched the Portsmouth High basketball team win the Division II state basketball championship from his hospital bed. The team gave Brennan the championship basketball – complete with each player’s signature. The ball remained tucked next to him on his hospital bed.
“It was so tough not to be there. I was so proud of those kids,” said Brennan.
The day before Easter, he received a new lease on life when he received a heart transplant.
Nine days later he was back home in Portsmouth. The next day he walked five miles. He hasn’t slowed down.
“He is a warrior,” said Brennan’s childhood friend Mark Rodriques, who set up a GoFundMe page to benefit the Brennan Family. “He has touched so many people. He’s so dedicated as a teacher and coach. He cares about everyone. He’s the first one to step up for others. We all needed to do something.”
A community rallies around a local coach fighting for his life. Friday at 6 @StreetStories12 @wpri12 @Margiebrennan44 #Portsmouth @PortsmouthHS_RI @JohnnyVillella #ThompsonMiddleSchool pic.twitter.com/daGt6KHQSQ
— Mike Montecalvo (@mmontecalvotv) April 8, 2021
“The community has been phenomenal,” said Brennan “Everyone. The Plumb Family, Mike McFarland (owner of Tremblay’s) ..everyone…11 year-old kids from Thompson Middle School contributing $5 to a GoFundMe. Players. Coaches. Old friends. New friends. It is so humbling. It has made my heart so full and has given me so much strength.”
Brennan misses being on the Portsmouth football sidelines where his son Luke is a sophomore on the team. When he’s not walking miles around Portsmouth, he is watching game film. He’s already preparing for next fall, when he hopes to be back in school and back on the sidelines.
“Oh I’m not surprised about his strength and positive attitude through this hard time. He has always been like that,” said Huntley Almeida, member of the Patriots’ team and son of the head coach.
When Portsmouth’s Carson Conheeny suffered a dislocated knee April 10 during the Patriots’ game against East Greenwich, he was taken away by ambulance. Physically and emotionally upset, as he headed to the hospital uncertain the extent of his injury, he received a text message from Coach Brennan.
“I was devastated thinking it was really bad. Kid works so hard at everything he does. Best teammate,” said Brennan.
Brennan never let on that he was worried about Conheeny’s injury.
“He said all positive things to me. He told me I was going to be alright. It made me feel so much better,” said Conheeny. He is always positive. That’s who he is.”
“He cares about all of his players as a whole person, not just an athlete. He finds a way to get the best out of everybody. He pushed me to be my best self on and off the court and field,” said Portsmouth football and basketball player Henry Rodriques. “Coach always takes time to reach out no matter what is going on. While in the hospital awaiting his surgery, he called in to check on me and how I was doing while I was sick. He made sure I was focused and I felt better. He has set many examples for me, including to care for others, give back, and keep working. I try to honor him by doing these every day.”
Brennan is thrilled to have a new lease on life, but can’t help thinking the gift of a new year meant that someone else’s family would be suffering the worst possible loss. He pauses, takes a deep breath and chokes back the tears.
“This is hard for me to think about my second chance and the way I feel right now – which is absolutely phenomenal. It’s on the back of another family’s worst day. It’s a hard thing to come to grips with. I thought about that every day since my transplant. I care,” said Brennan. “I’m not going to let this family down. I owe this family this gift of being a good steward of this heart and that’s what I am going to be. I am going to redouble my efforts to help kids and I’m going to give good energy to my community and to my family.”
Just as he always has.