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For most of his life, William Kranz thought he just had to live with the physical limitations and emotional distress that accompanied a chest deformity. But at age 33, he learned surgery could correct the problem. Since he underwent that procedure at Mayo Clinic, William has been free to pursue a new, active lifestyle.

William Kranz delights in telling people he is "living his life behind bars," with two more years to go. But William welcomes that time because, to him, those bars represent freedom and better health.

The "bars" are actually metal rods inserted under William's ribcage during a surgical procedure at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus. They freed him from the pain and emotional distress that burdened him for most of his 36 years.

William, from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, was born with pectus excavatum, a condition where his breastbone was sunken into his chest. It eventually impeded his breathing and interfered with his heart function.

"Breathing was a daily chore for me," he says. "I remember just lying in bed at night, crying, because I would hold my chest, and my heart was beating so hard, it felt like it would beat right out of my chest."

Until he was 33, William even didn't know the name of his condition. Doctors insisted that his sunken chest was just cosmetic, or the result of "growing pains." Once he learned about pectus excavatum, it led him to Mayo Clinic and, eventually, to the surgery that dramatically improved his quality of life.

"My breathing is completely changed. I can take a full breath, and I've never been able to experience that," he says. "I feel 100 percent better."

Bound by constant pain

For many years, William's condition caused daily problems. He not only experienced breathing issues, a rapid heartbeat and persistent pain, but his condition took an emotional toll, as well. "I was teased and bullied as a kid," he says, admitting he continually invented ways to not have to expose his concave chest, even at doctor appointments. In time, the toll his condition took on him led to depression.

"I was about 280 pounds at age 33, and I felt like I was going to die," William says. He openly admits that he harbored suicidal thoughts on occasion. "I felt like I was in self-exile."

The turning point came when he went in for a routine medical checkup. The doctor saw William's chest and assumed William already knew he had pectus excavatum. But William couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"I was just shocked. I felt like I was the only one in the world with it," he says. "I had never heard that term or seen anyone else with it."

After that appointment, William got down to business, exploring websites and reading all he could about pectus excavatum. Not only did he learn he was not alone, he found information about Dawn Jaroszewski, M.D., a Mayo Clinic cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon. All he read about her, including patient testimonials, pushed him to contact Dr. Jaroszewski's office.

"Everything made sense," William says. "It clicked for me."

Liberated to an active life

When he learned there was a procedure that might be able to help him, William vowed to be surgery-ready. He made a pledge to get in shape and take off some weight. He took up running, and despite his breathing issues, he not only completed a 10K, but he surprised himself by finishing a half marathon.

His efforts paid off. Mayo Clinic accepted him for pectus excavatum surgery, which took place on Feb. 16, 2016. Dr. Jaroszewski placed the three metal bars in his chest to push out his sternum and hold it in place. He immediately felt a sense of calm, William says, knowing he had found help to correct the condition that had caused him misery for so long.

William sings the praises of his care team: Dr. Jaroszewski; Kelly Myers, pectus coordinator; Marianne Merritt, a nurse in Cardiothoracic Surgery; and everyone involved in his care.

"What Dr. Jaroszewski did for me was truly life-changing, and I can't recommend her, her pectus team and the Mayo Clinic enough," William says. "Today I have absolutely zero pain from my pectus condition, or from my surgery. I can actually breathe, and all my issues went away."

William recently returned to Mayo Clinic for his one-year follow-up. While in Arizona, he came in first in his age group at a 5K race at the Phoenix Zoo. He also plans to participate in an ironman competition in Louisville, Kentucky, in October 2017.

"I hope to be the first person to complete an Ironman competition with pectus bars," he says. "I hope to be able to use that event as a platform to raise more awareness for pectus."

Watch this video to learn more about William's story.