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Tales of Triumph

by Michelle Boyles, Josephine Cusumano, Kaytlyn Mroz and Peter Proko; Photography by Gary Mattie
It’s easy to take the wonders of the medical world for granted. We get sick, we get examined, we get the treatment to hopefully make us better and get us on the road to recovery. But, then there are those times when a health scare arises seemingly out of nowhere. Or, that nagging pain that we let linger for far too long becomes a much larger problem. In some cases, lives are even hanging in the balance. That’s when great doctors tend to rise to the occasion and there are countless patients out there who can testify to this. The following are just a small gathering of some of those stories. They are stories that show how the ever-evolving world of medicine is giving medical professionals the tools to give people a chance to once again live their lives to the fullest. But, more than that, they are about the effect that patients and doctors have on each other and the everlasting bonds that they form.

ANDRE THOMAS
Andre Thomas considered himself a normal 23-year-old guy. He had recently graduated college in Miami and returned back to his native South Jersey. Then, one January 2010 day his stomach began to bother him immensely. He fainted in his bathroom and woke up a week later in a bed at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. He had been in a coma and had wires all over his body. He was trying to process his situation when he got the news that he had suffered acute liver failure and was given a liver transplant.

“It was new, I never had any medical history before,” Thomas says. “I woke up and I saw that I wasn’t myself.”

But there was more to come. After Dr. John S. Radomski successfully performed the liver transplant, Thomas’ kidneys began to fail and he was immediately put on dialysis. His recovery became that much more difficult, not to mention uncertain.

“It was a unique struggle, learning how to walk again. How to hold a spoon ... having someone pick me up to bathe me,” Thomas says of the four months he spent at Lourdes trying to get back on his feet.

“Most forms of liver transplants are for chronic disease,” says Radomski. “Andre had [an immediate liver failure]. It occurs in someone who is previously healthy with a normal liver and suddenly the liver fails. The common reasons for that are infections and viruses, but with Andre we could find no evidence of that. About 20 percent of the folks who get it, we don’t know what causes it.”

While kidney failure is not uncommon following a liver transplant, the organs typically do recover according to Radomski, but that was not the case here. From January 2010 until this year, Thomas was on dialysis and a waiting list until Radomski performed a kidney transplant on him this past Mother’s Day.

“I feel like my old self,” Thomas says joyously. “It was bleak those six years; there were days I was really up and days when I was really low. During that process, I always knew that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I feel like I got a rebirth and I can’t thank Dr. Radomski enough.” Radomski says.

For his part, Thomas says the bond he shares with Radomski will never be broken. “He saved my life,” he says. Which is why in 2013 Thomas requested Radomski be present for another life-changing moment— his wedding day.

“I told Dr. Radomski he had no choice but to come. I needed him to understand that I wouldn’t be getting married if it wasn’t for him. Yes, he helps a lot of people but I want him to always feel that I appreciate what he has done for me. It’s not just coming from me, it’s coming from my wife, my mom and dad; it comes from my kids too. I just want him to know that I love him to death.”

SHERMAN WOOD
Sherman Wood was working in the garden of his Lower Alloways Creek home when he began to feel a pain in his chest. He couldn’t figure out why he was having shortness of breath, but thought maybe he was coming down with a cold or some sort of respiratory infection. After all, he had no prior history of heart disease and had just concluded another season of refereeing high school basketball.

Later that day, when the pain became more severe, he called 911. Soon after he was taken by ambulance to a local school where he was then airlifted to Cooper Hospital. He remembers seeing the fire engines, the EMTs— one of which was his nephew. He remembers thinking of his wife and how someone needed to get in touch with her. Then his heart stopped. For 90 seconds.

“I was never afraid of dying,” Woods reflects. “I really don’t know why. With all I had to lose, I don’t know why I wasn’t more afraid.” Once he arrived at Cooper he was descended up on by a team of“15to20 people” who immediately began working on him to help clear the blockage in his heart. It was a calculated approach.

“What he describes is what we see every day,” says Dr. Elias A. Iliadis, director of the Vascular Intervention Program at the Cooper Heart Institute. “We do have a whole team that pounces on you [upon arrival], but it’s orchestrated.”

Iliadis and the team performed an emergency cardiac catheterization on Wood to help stop the symptoms and clear the blockage. Within 35 minutes, Wood says “It was like an elephant sitting on you and it immediately went away.”

“He unfortunately did die, but he died in the hands of emergency personnel who were able to bring him back. Had he not made that phone call and they weren’t there” things could have been drastically worse, says Dr. Sajjad Sabir, co-director of Cooper’s Structural Heart Disease Program.

While Wood survived the situation and has returned to his everyday life, which includes completing mud runs with his son and spending time with loved ones, he still often thinks about the surreal moments he experienced that day.

“I had some trouble a month later thinking about it,” Wood says. “My heart stopped and I’m trying to put it in perspective that I wasn’t here and now I’m here, and trying to appreciate that.

It’s a strange feeling, that’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, but now I just appreciate it and don’t dwell on it.”

“It’s so rewarding to see someone have an event and recover well and go back to maybe a better quality of life,” says Iliadis.

“Your quality of life is important and hopefully you can get back to it and do it better,” adds Sabir.

While both doctors credit Wood’s prior physical condi- tion in helping his rapid recovery, they also use it as a caution to many otherwise healthy people who don’t think something like this can ever happen to them. It could be bad genes, bad habits or in this case, simply bad luck they say.

“Being indebted goes against my character and I never like to feel that way, but this is an indebtedness that I accept because these guys are keeping me alive,” says Wood.

NORMAN BIRKENMEIER
Norman Birkenmeier’s whole life has been athletics. The one-time captain of his track team in high school has remained active well into his senior years and showed no signs of slowing down until one fateful winter’s day when the then 85-year-old slipped on some ice outside of his home and badly injured his leg. After visiting his regular doctor who had performed five arthroscopic surgeries on him previously, X-rays showed he had ruptured the tendons above his knee.

For the highly decorated and nationally ranked tennis player, it was a blow both physically and mentally. “Nothing in my entire life hurt like that [injury],” Birkenmeier says. “[My doctor] said, ‘You’re too old to play tennis the way you’re playing.’”

After spending four months hoping the injury would heal with no luck, Birkenmeier ended up being referred to Virtua’s Dr. Scott D. Schoifet, an orthopedic surgeon. Because Birkenemeir didn’t seek immediate attention, the injury to his knee had become so severe that Schoifet couldn’t help him until the tendons were repaired.

For Birkenmeier, it was more bad news and more uncertainty on whether or not he’d ever get the chance to play the sport he loves so much again.

“Here’s the thing about knee replacements, most are pretty routine,” Schoifet says. “He walks into my office and says he wants to play tennis. ... I could feel the tendons, nothing was there. You had to see the look on his face when you’re telling him, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to play.’”

Despite the grim prognosis, Birkenmeier was determined to return to the court. “It probably came from the fact that I’ve always been competitive since I was a kid.”

After another surgeon was able to repair the quadriceps tendon, six months later Schoifet “reconstructed” the knee and after some rest and rehabilitation, Birkenmeier returned to his passion—even improving upon his national ranking. He continues to play around the country, though now he relegates his tournament play to doubles matches as a means to pre- serve his playing time. He also went from playing five- to-seven days a week to two, but not for the reasons you may think.

“It’s hard finding guys who are worth playing,” Birkenmeier quips.

Schoifet credits Birkenmeier’s undeterred spirit with helping guide him through the healing process. “If I had all patients like him, my job would be easy,” he says.

Once Birkenmeier was on the mend, some of the folks in the doctor’s office asked if he was going to return to playing tennis, as if there was ever a doubt. “I said, ‘You know I’m going to go back and play tennis. I have to keep active,’” he says.

DANIEL COLANGELO
If there was ever a time when doing what you are told has led to a good outcome, Daniel Colangelo knows of it first-hand.

Twelve years ago, Colangelo was two years into his early retirement and had the beginning signs of atrial fibrillation (A-Fib)—episodes that lasted a couple of hours and occurred every few months. He chalked it up as nothing to worry about at the time.

“But then the atrial fibrillation became chronic—in other words, my heart was totally in A-Fib,” says Colangelo. “And I didn’t realize it for a couple of months. My heart was getting progressively weaker and I went into heart failure. Finally, the symptoms were so bad that I got rushed into the emergency room at Virtua.”

Realizing what he was up against, Colangelo asked to be transferred to Deborah Heart and Lung Center. There, Colangelo met Dr. Raffaele Corbisiero, chief of electrophysiology, and it was determined that he would benefit from a CRT-D [a pacemaker with a defibrillator].

“His main problem when we first met was with the atrial fibrillation. The rhythm disturbments from the top part of the heart were driving the bottom part crazy and making everything else more difficult,” says Corbisiero. “At that point, we discussed that we could take control. The bottom part does the work of the heart, that’s the one that the ejection fraction comes from. When the heart squeezes, we like to see about half of what’s in there get pumped out.”

At that point, Colangelo’s ejection fraction was at only 20 percent.

“When [the ejection fraction] starts to go down, your life shortens,” says Corbisiero.

“I remember at the time, I was coming to grips with what the condition of my heart was. I remember a follow-up interview with Dr. Corbisiero telling me what I had to do,” says Colangelo. “He gave me the gift, it was up to me to follow through the requirements to make full use of the gift.”

Asking if his heart could get better, Corbisiero said it might be able to get to a 35 percent ejection fraction and for Colangelo that was enough.

Colangelo did everything he was told. He continued walking, took his medication as prescribed, ate a heart-healthy diet with low sodium, gave up caffeine, social drinking and nicotine.

“Within less than two years, I got an echocardiogram and no one could believe that my ejection fraction went up to normal in the 50-55 percent range,” says Colangelo.

Colangelo’s first pacemaker was removed after about a year when he contracted a tick- borne infection that eventually led to temporary kidney failure and put him on dialysis for three-and-a-half months leading to a blood infection. “That spread all up and down the pacemaker and had to be removed by Dr. Corbisiero,” says Colangelo.

In total, Colangelo has had four pacemakers so far.

“They only last so long,” says Corbisiero, about six years or so.

“I did what I was supposed to do and with the pacemaker,” says Colangelo, “I’m able to enjoy my retirement, I’m independent and I’m having the happiest years of my life.”

MICHAEL BERGER
Michael Berger is one tough guy, but when the now 47- year-old got a paper cut on his hand this past February, he ended up in the ICU fighting for his life.

“I got a paper cut, I don’t know where I got it from, but I put a little Band-Aid on it and that evening, it started to hurt,” explains Berger. Unfortunately, the pain became unbearable and the next night, Berger drove himself to Cherry Hill’s Kennedy University Hospital, where he was being admitted. “I called my mother and that’s the last thing I remember,” he recalls. “When I woke up, I saw Nurse Carol Strosser and my mother, which was a little over three weeks [later].”

What Berger doesn’t remember was his arm had swelled up to about three times its normal size, complete with redness, blistering and bruising spreading upwards, a tell-tale sign to doctors that the paper cut had morphed into a severe bacterial infection.

Dr. Mark Paiste, a fellowship-trained orthopedic hand surgeon, was among the first doctors to assess Berger and performed a total of two surgeries on Berger’s hand, in order to flush out bacteria and remove dead tissue. However, the infection didn’t subside after the first surgery and as Berger was becoming septic, he was placed on a ventilator and transferred to the ICU under the care of Dr. Aaron Crookshank, a pulmonary and critical care specialist.

“We communicated with Infectious Disease about the progression, [Berger’s] condition and that despite having had the surgical procedure to get rid of any collection of infection, there was evidence of potential progression,” explains Crookshank. “We were concerned about a condition commonly referred to as flesh-eating bacteria.”

That’s where Dr. Mark Condoluci, an infectious diseases specialist, stepped in. “In my line of work, if you’re seen by surgeons, that usually represents there’s a severe infection. ... In this instance, bad bacteria got into an unfortunate space, where toxins can manifest.” As a means of stopping those toxins, Condoluci pooled high doses of intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), a special serum that intercepts the toxins, to stop the bacteria, which was threatening Berger’s limbs, organs and overall condition.

“Multiple [Kennedy] institutions had to give us doses so we could combine it and get the right dose for [Berger] to use that night and the next day, [the infection] was right where I left it. It stopped,” says Crookshank. Unfortunately, the byproducts of the infection affected Berger’s kidney and lung function, resulting in acute respiratory distress syndrome and shock.

“We battled with it for the better part of two-three weeks before we could stabilize it and get Berger off support,” explains Crookshank. “Luckily, due to everybody’s efforts, a little bit of luck, [Berger’s] fighting spirit and his mom’s support ... we were able to get him through it.

“When you’re in an illness like that and you have multiple organs affected from an infection that are failing, the mortality rate is significant,” adds Crookshank. “[Berger] had optimal results and it was due to effort of all those folks who worked collaboratively.”

Once Berger woke up from the ordeal, comforted by his mother and Nurse Strosser, he learned how close he was to losing his life. “I thank God for these people, they saved my life,” says Berger. “They’re God’s hands. That’s the way I look at every single one of them. ... [This] was a collaboration between the doctors and nurses and everything came together in a perfect storm to save my life.”

As for Berger’s hand, he was fore- warned he’d lose some mobility, but seeing how well he can give a handshake, that’s not the case. “Don’t get me wrong, I have a little stiffness and a little deformation from what it was before, but if that’s all it is, I’m very, very happy.”

MARY SULLIVAN
Mary Sullivan was born with arteriovenous malformation (AVM) which is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain. When she was 17 years old she had the “traumatic experience” of three aneurysms bursting simultaneously. As a result, she has suffered from paralysis which has led to more complications as years go by.

But it doesn’t end there.

Sullivan saw a rheumatologist who introduced her to Dr. Richard Jermyn, director of the NeuroMosculoskeletal Institute (NMI) at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine. Jermyn utilized botox injections (as many as 30) for Sullivan’s spasticity for her arm and legs when the rheumatologist thought she might be in a bunch of different devices because of her condition.

“She was simply the least disabled, disabled person I know,” Jermyn says.

But nine months ago, Sullivan was suffering from headaches again. When she told Jermyn, he suggested an MRI.

“[It was] another aneurysm,” says Sullivan. “And meningioma—which is a brain tumor—on the other side [of my brain].”

“And it wasn’t a little aneurysm,” explains Jermyn. “It was a big one.”

Shortly after, Sullivan went to Jefferson to have brain surgery. She had a stent put in to help keep the aneurysm from rupturing.

Keeping in mind that Sullivan also has Celiac disease and a blood disorder called hypohemoglobinemia, and was now rehabbing from brain surgery, she received another life-altering test result after complaining about pain under her arm.

“Unfortunately, it turned out to be breast cancer,” says Jermyn. “So she has gone through treatments over this last year to treat the breast cancer.”

While dealing with all of these health issues, Sullivan was faced with the most devastating events of all, losing her sister to breast cancer and her brother to brain cancer in the past year and a half, on top of her father’s passing, too.

“I’ve never seen her other than how she is right now [smiling and bubbly]. Just a com- plete and total inspiration and a through and through teacher,” says Jermyn. “She teaches all of our medical students and she teaches me every day.”

Jermyn says the hardest thing he thinks Sullivan has gone through was being forced to stop working as a teacher and focus on her health while going through treatment for her breast cancer. “I have no doubt that she will be back at work,” he says.

Talking about her illnesses, Sullivan says with a smile, “I’m OK. I’m strong and I can do it.”

Spending the better part of 10 years as doctor and patient, their relationship has grown farther than that.

“We love each other,” says Sullivan, with a laugh.

“Very much so,” Jermyn adds. “She’s a patient that’s more than a patient. She’s an inspiration and when she’s not feeling well, she’s not calling me saying she doesn’t feel well. I tell her we have a social visit every two weeks: one, is because I need to see her and the other is because she is my sanity.”

STACY LEONARD
Stacy Leonard sustained a herniated disc when she was a teenager, but it didn’t bother her for decades. “Maybe it would flare up once in a while, but it would go away,” she says. Then one morning in October 2014, she woke up with searing pain shooting down her right leg.

She went to see her primary care physician and was referred for an MRI, which revealed the problems with the disc in her lumbar spine. From there, she was sent to an orthopedic spine specialist who said that pain wouldn’t be caused by a herniated disc and suggested a different diagnosis of piriformis syndrome. Leonard’s experience working in a medical office made her question the diagnosis, which is when she sought out Dr. Jack Jallo, a professor of neurosurgery at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University.

Eight months after the initial diagnosis, Jallo confirmed the herniated disc was at the root of her problems. At this point, the pain was so intense, Leonard could barely walk. Jallo took a conservative approach to start, referring her to a pain management specialist who gave Leonard a series of injections that provided some temporary relief, but it was always fleeting.

“I went back to the pain management doctor crying,” she says. “I told him, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I don’t want to mask the pain. I want the pain gone.’”

“Herniated discs are very common. They can be low grade painful, in which case we just manage it with therapy or exercises or time and most of them get better. Stacy had given it plenty of time,” says Jallo.

Leonard was understandably scared. “I was a nervous wreck,” she says. But Jallo quickly put her at ease.

“The surgery is really simple,” says Jallo. “We go in and shave off a little portion of the disc that is pressing on the nerve. It’s outpatient surgery. Most people are feeling better within two weeks.”

In Leonard’s case, the pain was gone immediately after the procedure. She was fine until June of this year when the pain started on the left side. Within three days, she lost control of her left foot altogether. This time, surgery—which was again a success—was scheduled immediately.

“The foot drop is unusual. Most people with a herniated disc have pain,” Jallo explains. “The issue with the foot drop is that it could easily become permanent. So the decision for surgery is much more urgent. ... You’re risking permanent paralysis.”

Two weeks later, Leonard’s son sustained a herniated disc playing hockey. In this case, the disc fragments were much larger than in hers.

“You certainly see it in families. It has to do with the connective tissue that holds you together. ... We don’t really know, but we see it clustering in that fashion. Things you can do to counteract your genetics are things like core strength,” Jallo says.

Leonard and her son continue to follow the doctor’s instructions and build up their physical strength. “She’s really the perfect patient,” Jallo says.

Leonard says the feeling is more than mutual and she is extremely grateful that he was able to help her and her son, “Dr. Jallo literally gave me back my life.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 6 (September, 2016).
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