When Donald Wright, 70, Murphysboro, tees up for a round of golf, it seems somehow sweeter than before: the grass is greener, the birds are cheerier, the air is fresher. “I’m alive,” he says, simply.
A year ago, few would have predicted he would live to play golf again. “That’s because the Prairie Heart sign on the hospital is only about this big,” said his wife, Joy Wright, holding two fingers about one inch apart. “A lot of people don’t realize how great the heart program is.”
Mr. Wright’s heart story began in September 2004. He was feeling pain in all of his joints. He thought it was arthritis. However, for the next few weeks, Don’s pain increased, he became weak and short of breath. He was so uncomfortable he had to sleep in a chair. But, as so many men do, he kept thinking and saying, “I’ll get better,” and he did not go to the doctor.
On September 25, Joy came home from a ladies’ breakfast at their church to find Don on their shiny, hardwood floor, breathless, unable to stand. “I think the arthritis has gone to my chest,” he said, but still he insisted he would get better. The next morning he was worse. Joy took her husband’s face in her hands, looked him in the eye, and said, “I am taking you to the hospital. You can ride in the car or I can call the ambulance, but you are going.”
“She saved my life,” Wright said. At St. Joseph Memorial Hospital lab tests showed no sign of heart attack. However, an x-ray showed fluid in his lungs. It looked like pneumonia. Don was admitted to the hospital and doctors prescribed an aggressive antibiotic therapy. Joy stayed with her husband, dozing in the chair by his bed through the night. Suddenly, she awoke to him shouting, “I cut myself bad,” and flailing about. He was having a bad dream and had pulled out his IV. He was bleeding.
“The nurses rushed in, calmed him, got him cleaned up and OK,” Joy said. “He was delirious, but he was fighting to stay alive.”
Though his symptoms did not indicate heart attack, just to be sure, his doctor ordered a cardiac catheterization at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale. Varadendra Panchamukhi, MD, performed the catheterization. What he saw on the images of Don’s heart and arteries did show blockages but no signs of heart attack. However, he saw something else that caused him great concern. The heart valve leading to Don’s aorta was disintegrating and blood was flowing back into the heart. He was on the verge of total heart failure.
He contacted the two heart surgeons at the hospital, Kenneth Saum, MD, and Joseph Rubelowsky, MD. Minutes later, all three doctors were in the cardiac catheterization recovery room talking to Joy. Don lay beside her, nearly unconscious and delirious.
“Mrs. Wright,” Saum said in his gentle, calm manner. “His heart valve has blown off. We believe he could have only 30 minutes to live.” Joy held her husband’s hand, fighting back tears. This could be the end. Saum explained they could replace the valve, but they must act quickly.
“He was so sweet and so kind,” Joy recalled. “He explained it all so well. And Dr. Rubelowsky and Dr. Panchamuckhi were so concerned.” She told them to go ahead with the surgery. The doctors sprang into action; Rubelowsky on one side of the bed, Saum on the other and Dr. Panchamuckhi on the end. Nurses and technicians in tandem, they wheeled him down to surgery, barking orders and talking with OR on their pocket phones. Minutes later, the surgical team had him prepped for surgery. Working together, Rubelowsky performed a heart bypass while Saum replaced the valve.
For Joy, the next few hours would be a lifetime. She waited with her son, Jason, and their pastor and more than 20 family and friends. Few words were spoken. When the surgery was over, Saum and Rubelowsky joined Joy in the consulting room. Don was alive, but it would take time to know if the surgery was a true success.
“They explained everything so meticulously, and they asked me if I had any questions. It was so good of these guys to just sit at a table and answer every question. They never acted like they needed to go anywhere,” Joy said.
What had happened to Don was endocarditis, or infection of the lining of the heart. It had completely destroyed his aortic valve and spread over most of the heart’s outer lining. Saum said there was so much infection that vegetation, like a mold, was growing on it. However, his heart muscle was healthy. With the right rehabilitation, he could have a good recovery.
Joy went to cardiac intensive care to see Don. Her son and the pastor went in first so that they might tell her what to expect. Don was suspended in the “Bear Hugger,” an inflatable cushion pumped with warm air to help stabilize his body temperature. “It was like he was packed in a raft,” Joy said, “and I counted over 16 tubes leading in and out.” He was on a respirator and his eyes were open, but glazed.
“It was the scariest thing I ever saw.”
The nurse comforted her and said she would stay with Don until he woke up. “And she stayed hours after her shift was over. That’s how much they care. It takes more than two great surgeons to have a great heart program,” Joy said. Finally, Don woke up. He remembered nothing of his hospital stay but he did recall strange images of injections, operating rooms, bright lights and fear. Then, he saw Joy’s face. He struggled to speak and got out, “I’m sorry.” He had been smoking in secret for three years.
Saum visited them. He was pleased with the surgery outcome, but said Don would be a long time healing. Because of the endocarditis, he would stay in ICU for several weeks undergoing strong antibiotic therapy. His heart was weak and often in A-fib (atrial fibrillation, when the upper part of the heart quivers instead of beating regularly).
Joy remembered that the technician, Kim Sloan, popped in every time there was a change on the heart monitor and asked if he was OK. Sloan also said Don was special. It is not every day two heart surgeons work on the same patient.
“Oh, she was my guardian angel,” Don said.
“They all were. The way I see it, my story is a miracle. I had two surgeons by my side just when my heart valve blew off, and I had people like her and Dr. Panchamuckhi there too.”
Don’s hospital stay went from days to weeks. Joy almost never left the hospital. She eventually teetered on exhaustion. Dr. Saum sat her down one day, held her hands, looked her in the eye, and said, “Go home. Get some rest. You will need to be strong when he comes home.” Joy obeyed, and was very happy to hear he would come home.
After the hospital, Don spent months in cardiac rehabilitation at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital and continued with the antibiotics. Today, a year later, he is much more active and the metal valve in his heart is going strong. He has to watch the weather. In cold temperatures his blood could thicken and the valve could malfunction, but he still enjoys golf every week.
Sitting together in their comfortable Murphysboro home, sunlight dancing on the walls, Joy looks at him with a kind of sparkle that seems to say, “I got to keep my husband.” Giraffe nick knacks and statues adorn the home. Joy loves them and Don always brought them home from trips when he was an over-the-road truck driver. She hugs a pillow with a giraffe embroidered on it that she got at the Pink Geranium. It kept her company in Don’s darkest hours.
“They saved him,” she says simply. “I’d hold that heart program up to any program, anywhere.”