Fambrough: Coach gives new meaning to having heart _lowres

Brian Spillman, Baton Rouge area high school coach, and his wife, Amy.

Every year, I write about student-athletes who play with desire and determination.

Coaches usually break it down by saying, “You know, he (or she) plays with so much heart.”

Now things come full circle. This is about a coach with a new heart.

“Being an athlete and a coach has definitely helped me through this,” Brian Spillman said. “First, I got the call and found out (a heart transplant) was going to happen. And the next day it did.

“So many things since then have been regimented, and my background as a coach has helped with that.”

The 41-year-old Spillman coached at a number of local schools, including Parkview Baptist, Christian Life, Catholic-Pointe Coupee, Belaire, Baker and East Iberville. Three years ago he was told he had five years to live with his heart.

A diagnosed diabetic since the age of 8, Spillman started having heart-related issues while working as a nonfaculty coach at Parkview and teacher in 2011. He was advised to retire from both professions, and did.

Doctors told Spillman he should get another 30 to 35 years with his new heart.

“There were times when it was rough,” Spillman said. “To be honest with you, I don’t remember much about the first month I was in the hospital. I do remember (Parkview Baptist assistant football coach) Scott Dieterich and his wife stopping by the hospital after Parkview played in the finals at the Dome.

“I pretty much missed the whole championship season. But I gained so much. I have an even greater appreciation for donor families and what they go through. I was one of four people who got a life-changing transplant because of one donor.

“I’ll never forget that, and our goal now as a family is to raise the awareness about organ donation and how important it is. It does save lives.”

Spillman spent two years on the heart transplant list before receiving a donor heart Nov. 18 at Ochsner Hospial in New Orleans. He spent a month in the hospital and another month in an Ochsner rehab facility before coming home to Zachary on Jan. 20.

Each day, Spillman goes through physical therapy and occupational therapy at home. More doctor visits and tougher cardio therapy is to follow. The transplant affected his right side the most. With therapy, function is returning. He takes required medication multiple times a day.

“I guess it’s good that I’m left-handed,” Spillman said. “They tell me people generally make the biggest improvement during the third month after the transplant, and that’s where I am now. I’m anxious to see how that goes.”

Spillman has been told he should be able to return to “pretty much” a normal life eventually. He wants that life to include coaching, if at all possible. For now, he lives vicariously through the experiences of friends like Dieterich and Redemptorist coach Terence Williams.

There’s also the help and support of his wife, Amy. Oldest son, Slade, who is 17, is part of his at-home care team. A new family routine allowed 12-year T.J. to return to wrestling practice this week.

“I feel blessed, and I’m excited about the future,” Spillman said. “But I miss coaching … that’s the bottom line. There’s nothing like it. Maybe I’ll get a chance again as a nonfaculty guy. Right now I’m taking it one day at a time.”

Great honor, people

It was a great honor for me to receive the Louisiana Track and Field Coaches Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award last week in Lafayette.

I’ve always considered what I do to be storytelling. I love sharing the stories of track and field athletes and coaches. More than that, I love the people.

Two of those people, the late Donald Dunbar and Butch Helveston, were also honored. You’re talking about two people who dedicated their lives to athletes. I can’t think of better way of life.