By Andres Waters
As surgeons performed a routine debridement, an interesting conversation began in the operating room at the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute. With a camera in one side of the patient’s left knee and a shaver in the other, two men listed players from the 1999 Buffalo Bills roster while looking at the monitor.
“Holecek played for that team too,” orthopedic surgeon Greg Portland, a life-long Bills fan, said as he shaved pieces of tissue.
“John Holecek,” Chris Braier asked in response. “Did he really?”
Welcome to a normal Friday morning for Chris Braier. The 32-year-old is a surgical physician assistant spending weekdays for the past four years at the clinic in Glenview. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Braier can be found working with patients recovering from surgery. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he’s draped from head-to-toe in blue scrubs in the operating room.
Such a schedule would be overwhelming for any man, but not Braier. The former Division III basketball Player of the Year also balances coaching hoops part-time at Loyola Academy with obtaining a second Master’s degree in business at Northwestern University. And he’s in the middle of planning his wedding.
Normally, on Fridays, Braier, who lives in downtown Chicago, will get up at 5:45 a.m. to leave his house no later than 6:15. But this Friday would be different.
After working a 12-hour shift at the NorthShore University HealthSystem-Glenbrook Hospital, he then reported to the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute to assist in three surgeries.
Despite working on less than two hours of sleep, Braier was still walked around the office with a smile so wide it could be seen under his surgical mask.
“He’s just a free spirit,” lead physician assistant Melissa Childs said. “And, fun loving. He’s always smiling.”
After finishing his last surgery around noon, Braier left Illinois Bone and Joint to be closer to his second job. He also had to worry about another commitment, graduate school.
Braier is in the second year of a five-year, part-time MBA program at Northwestern.
Before going to study at Starbucks, he made his routine stop at Foodstuffs to pick up his favorite lunch: the Loco’s tuna wrap.
Braier, who already has a Master’s degree in physician assistant studies, said that he went back to school because he wanted to do more for the community within the medical field. After obtaining his MBA, Braier plans to pursue a career in hospital administration or pharmaceutical device work.
“As a physician assistant, you can affect lives individually,” he said. “But, you can affect millions of lives in pharmacy work.”
At three o’clock, Braier left the coffee shop to go to Loyola Academy. After spending five years away from basketball, Braier said he wanted to get involved with the sport again.
He had plenty to offer as the 2004 NCAA Division III Player of the Year at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and being named a three-time D-III All-American. He also finished second nationally in rebounding among all NCAA players in 2004 before spending four years playing professionally overseas.
Three years ago, he became an assistant with Loyola’s sophomore team before moving up to work with the varsity players.
Braier just completed his first year with the varsity, where he coordinated inbound plays while also having to work with the post players.
“We’re really lucky to have him, he’s been a priceless asset,” Loyola head coach Tom Livatino said. “His experience, his competitiveness, his intelligence, his love and these relationships with the kids…I think he’s done a really good job. He’s adding his imprint [with] how he coaches and his own personal style.”
Livatino believes Braier has one of the toughest jobs of the entire coaching staff, but his background as a former player has alleviated the difficulty and allowed him to help seniors Julian DeGuzman and Kris Lampley improve their play.
“He got by, not because he was a tremendous athlete, but because he had a ridiculous motor,” Livatino said. “He wasn’t going to get outworked; he was a tremendous competitor. And, he also brings that edge to what we do.”
DeGuzman also credits Braier for the change in his mentality.
“He’s really helped me improve my confidence,” DeGuzman said. “Especially with the elbow jumper. And, he’s helped me a lot with my confidence in my post moves.”
Braier is pleased with the move to the varsity staff and he believes his new role is beneficial for both himself and Livatino.
“I think it’s great for me,” Braier said. “Because, in light of all the things going on, if I can just concentrate on those two things and be great at them, rather than everything, it makes my job easier [and] it makes his job easier too, hopefully.”
After working with Loyola’s team each weekday, Braier’s work is still often half done.He attends classes in Evanston two nights a week after Ramblers practices. When he gets home around 11 p.m., he spends the rest of the night doing homework and spending time with his fiancé.
“This season has been trying,” he said. “But, she’s been good about telling me ‘I have to find time for us.’”
To ensure they make time for each other, the couple plans one night each week that’s just for them. Occasionally she’ll come watch him coach at games.
“It takes a really special woman to understand the importance of it [basketball] to you,” he said.
Of all his responsibilities, Braier said he enjoys coaching the most.
“It’s a sacrifice, but it’s fun,” Braier said. “No matter how bad my day has been, no matter how long I’ve been working at the hospital, basketball has been something that keeps my energy up and gets me excited to be around.”
While Braier admits that balancing everything is difficult, he said the keys to finding success in his endeavors are time management, prioritizing and being present with each.
“You can get caught up with stuff like: ‘I’m at practice and I’m worried about school, I’m at school [but] I’m worried about home or I’m at home and I’m worried about practice,’” he said. “[But,] then you don’t get to enjoy everything. So, if I’m somewhere, I’m all in at that place. And then, when I’m at the next, I’m all in there.”