As Des Plaines residents Dantrell Brown and Maria Munguia celebrate Father's Day, their 2-year-old son, Josiah, doesn't yet realize his mild-mannered dad's true identity as a superhero.
"LVAD Dad. That's it! That's my superhero name," says Brown, 24, sporting a broad smile that rarely leaves his face during his interview online, where his alter ego (pronounced El Vad Dad) has made a name on YouTube and TikTok.
"Technically, I don't have a heartbeat or a pulse," Brown says. The Abbott HeartMate 3 planted in his chest is the left ventricular assist device -- LVAD -- that moves blood continuously through his body and keeps him alive.
"At first, I just kind of felt like I was the Terminator or a zombie, but all of this is cool," Brown says.
The LVAD is a heart pump that replaces a faulty left ventricle, which is the main pumping chamber in the heart, says Laura Coyle, an acute care nurse practitioner and the ventricular assist device coordinator at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
"It's great for him, mentally and physically," Coyle says of Brown. "He is exceptionally upbeat, so positive. He's a great patient. He's not alone. He's just one of our few rappers."
His rap beat video was inspired by his wife.
"I didn't realize we wouldn't hear his pulse until after the surgery," says Munguia, 27, who had her head on her husband's chest when she discovered the device in his chest made a noise. She told Brown to place his cellphone on his chest to see if it could record the sound.
"A normal heartbeat sounds like tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick," Brown says, using his mouth to mimic the beats. "The LVAD sounds like deee-oh, deee-oh, deee-oh."
A friend added drums and other effects to the LVAD sound. That video, called "Cyborg Series Part 1," went viral, registering 5.5 million views on TikTok.
"I was just like, wow, knowing that beat came from my heart. Wow!" Brown says. "That gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'From the heart.'"
While a few viewers sent him money, Brown says the purpose of his videos is to raise awareness.
"I got their attention. Now it's time for the education part," says Brown, whose videos explain how to live, and enjoy life, even while lugging around batteries that keep his LVAD pumping. "Just because you have this big obstacle, life is not over."
Brown's heart issues came to light on May 19, 2019.
"I was 22 and playing basketball at a park. I always played basketball my whole life. I could go hours playing basketball," Brown says. "That day, I just felt off."
Tired, sweaty and having a hard time catching his breath, Brown felt a tightening in his throat. "I drank some water thinking I was just dehydrated," remembers Brown, who went to the emergency room at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge the next morning. He was told he had congestive heart failure and given medicines for that.
On Nov. 21, 2019, Brown, whose family lives with his wife's parents, Rafael and Maria Munguia, was getting ready to play with his son. "The moment I picked him up from his nap, I felt woozy," remembers Brown, who managed to put the boy in a walker before he collapsed and lost consciousness. His mother-in-law called 9-1-1, and he was rushed to the hospital.
"They told me I needed this device," says Brown, who didn't hesitate.
"I had just watched 'Iron Man,'" Brown says, referring to the Marvel superhero movie in which character Tony Stark inserts an "arc reactor" in his chest to become Iron Man. "They told me everything and tried to comfort me. I wasn't scared at all.
"You guys obviously went to school for this. I trust you," he remembers telling the medical staff. "OK. I'm going to be a superhero. Let's do it. I'll be a superhero for my son."
The device was implanted during open-heart surgery on Dec. 9, 2019, at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. Brown came home on New Year's Eve with baggage.
"You go home with eight batteries," Brown says, adding that he was fully trained in how to manage the batteries, cords and alarms that are part of the LVAD. "Four batteries are charging, two are charged and in the backup bag, and two are in use."
Cords run from the batteries through a port in his side to connect to the machine attached to his heart.
Brown gave up his job doing food preparation in a nursing home when his heart condition placed him on disability. His wife works in patient care at NorthShore's Evanston Hospital.
"It was very scary," Munguia says of her husband's diagnosis. "I was 36 weeks pregnant at the time. It was life changing. The first thing I thought about was our son."
Being home gives Brown more time with Josiah.
"With the LVAD I feel great," Brown says. "I have the energy to chase after him, pick him up and just have fun."
The LVAD keeps people alive while they wait for a heart transplant, Coyle says. Some patients who are too fragile to survive a transplant improve enough with the LVAD to become eligible for a new heart, she says.
Brown dealt with the death of his mother, Berline Brown, who had underlying health issues and died of COVID-19 on Dec. 21. He now is working to get his recently diagnosed Type 2 diabetes under control before he moves onto the transplant waiting list.
Coyle says she has patients who have lived for more than a decade with the LVAD device. "He'll get a heart transplant," she says of Brown.
Until that time, Brown is making videos on YouTube and enjoying life with his wife, son, and in-laws.
"I'm dedicated to being a great dad," Brown says. "Life is what you make it to be. You just have to go the positive route."