From Routine Surgery to  Family Nightmare

From Routine Surgery to Family Nightmare

By Anthony Bonazzo

In June 2012, my sister, Jennifer, called me from New Jersey. She told me not to worry but that my father, John, was going to the ER. He was nauseated and short of breath. Later, after being admitted to the hospital, we learned that he had had a minor heart attack. The next 48 hours were a mix of scattered text messages, updates and slight panic as I tried to make sense of what was happening with my dad.

Within a few hours after he was admitted, the doctors highly recommended surgery to replace his aortic valve and unblock an artery. Immediacy was paramount, they said, adding that there were little to no complications with this type of surgery and that it was a fairly routine procedure.

Over the phone, my father and I briefly discussed a less invasive route—robotic heart surgery via da Vinci Surgery—but it was costly and was not covered by his insurance so that option was no good. Ultimately, my family followed the advice of dad’s doctors. Two days later, he was scheduled to have his aortic valve replaced with that of a cow.

The surgery went well. The following months were met with hopeful anticipation that the wound would heal well and that he’d be back to his usual routine. But the wound didn’t heal. My father, tired of being cooped up, resumed his normal activities despite the risk. He golfed, stayed busy and enjoyed life.

On a follow-up visit, dad’s doctors informed him that a second surgery would be necessary but not because of anything he did while up and about. A few days after Surgery 2, the wound appeared to be closing and healing. But a few months later, the progress halted. Dad tried alternative treatments, acupuncture, diet changes and reiki (a Japanese spiritual practice in alternative medicine) with no success. With another visit to his original doctors, we learned that he wasn’t healing because the wires used to stitch his chest back together in Surgery 1 were contaminated. And so, he would need a third surgery to clean up the mess.

The results of Surgery 3 were identical to Surgery 2—active healing then a sudden stop.

Then he collapsed without warning. My sister took him to the ER, where he was diagnosed with blood sepsis, a potentially deadly blood infection that can occur after surgeries. It was caught early enough so that the doctors were able to medicate him and clear it out before any extensive harm came to him.

For the majority of 2013 he hung in there. The wound, however, was not closing up, and dad was relegated to inactivity. He became depressed and anxious. I convinced him that we needed to seek out a top doctor in New York City. Finally, he obliged and met with a doctor at Columbia University Medical Center. She suggested a fourth surgery—plastic surgery—to remove the remaining wires.

Surgery 4 was performed, and all of the wires from the original surgery were removed. We were once again hopeful that, finally, this was going to be the answer. However, only a few days after surgery and back in Jersey, Jennifer texted me that dad woke up with a lot of pain in his leg and that they were taking him to the ER—again. There, he was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg. While there, his blood pressure tanked. After various tests, they discovered he had a boil on the chest wound, Clostridium difficile colitis (C. diff, a harmful bacteria that attacks the intestines) and a staph infection.

He remained in the hospital for four days before returning home. Worse for the wear, he needed a walker to barely get around. It was recommended that he move into a rehab center, where physical therapy would help him regain use of his leg. He spent six days there and eventually graduated from a walker to a cane.

My father was a victim of the hospital. What was hard sold to us as a routine heart surgery had almost claimed his life several different ways. A contaminated wire was put into his chest, and he paid for that error with multiple surgeries and subsequent health problems (and medical bills).

Now, after more than two years of an extended nightmare, he is home. The original wound has healed, his leg is better, and he is free of all other infections. Most importantly, his spirits are high. And by spring, he’ll likely be back on the links.

If we had to do it all over again, knowing what we know now, I would ask everyone to call a time out so that we could get a scope of the field and really calculate our actions. Because when it comes to the human body, nothing is routine.

Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2015 print edition