There’s quite a bit that Jerome Oppenheim still remembers about December 28, 2008, the day he very nearly lost his life. It was the Sunday after Christmas, and he and Pauline, his wife of 57 years, were at home getting ready to go to mass at St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church in Redondo Beach.
But shortly after that recollection, his memory goes dark. “All of a sudden, I felt lightheaded and said to my wife, ‘I don’t feel well,’” says Oppenheim, who was then 84. “It came on so sudden; it happened just like that. That’s all I remember.”
What happened next was that Oppenheim passed out and collapsed. Fortunately, his son-in-law, Ed—visiting for the holidays with the couple’s daughter, Terry—was there to catch him. Pauline immediately called 911. “The paramedics arrived quickly and took Jerry to the nearest hospital—which was Torrance Memorial,” she remembers.
We all know that life can change—sometimes forever—in the blink of an eye. And our dearest hope is that if a medical emergency does happen, we’ll receive the best care possible from a caring team of professionals with the highest ethics. That’s what Oppenheim, a retired aerospace engineer, says he experienced in the emergency room at Torrance Memorial Medical Center at the hands of cardiothoracic surgeon John Stoneburner, MD, and his colleagues on that late December day six years ago.
Even amid the hundreds of patients Dr. Stoneburner has seen during his decades as a surgeon (he arrived at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in 1989 after training with world-renowned cardiovascular surgeons Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Stanley Crawford at Baylor University in Houston, Texas), Oppenheim stands out among his most memorable patients. Why? Because his case was a particularly tough one, even for this seasoned physician.
Oppenheim had what Dr. Stoneburner calls a “traumatic presentation.” He had an acute type I aortic dissection with cardiac tamponade, which in laymen’s terms means there was a buildup of blood or fluid between the heart and its outer layers, which leads to pressure on the heart. Oppenheim’s carotid arteries, the major arteries in the neck that supply blood to the brain, face and neck, were also damaged, and he was unconscious.
“For a while he was literally at death’s door,” remembers Dr. Stoneburner. “Medications were needed to raise his low blood pressure, and he was on artificial support to maintain his circulation and keep him alive.”
Dr. Stoneburner had a dilemma to face, one that 21st-century surgeons encounter more often than ever: When should a physician bring all the resources of modern medicine to bear to save someone, even if it causes suffering, costs exorbitant amounts of money and simply delays the inevitable for just a brief time?
“Surgeons are faced with complex issues, especially now with improved technology,” says Dr. Stoneburner. “I’ve had other patients like Mr. Oppenheim, people who were in horrible situations, but we fight on and keep treating and they pull through.”
Understanding something about who Oppenheim was made Dr. Stoneburner’s decision about how to proceed much easier. “Once I learned of his history—that he had been in reasonably good health, was an active 84-year-old when this hit him, and had a loving and supportive family to care for him through a recovery—I felt I had to proceed with his surgery,” he says.
The doctor describes an extensive, complex procedure, including putting Oppenheim into a state of hypothermia (in which the body is cooled), stopping the heart and circulation so his aortic and carotid arteries could be repaired and then gradually warming his body back to a normal temperature. When Oppenheim woke from the nearly six-hour surgery, he knew that something had happened to him, but he wasn’t sure what, exactly.
“I saw tubes coming out of me everywhere. I knew my family was with me, and that gave me great comfort,” says Oppenheim, who was an avid golfer at the time of his health crisis. “I was so glad to be alive.”
Six years later, Oppenheim’s gratitude for the team that saved him hasn’t dimmed in the slightest. “I want to thank Dr. Stoneburner for saving my life. I’m grateful to my wife and family; my dear friend Dr. John Spalding, who kept my spirits up; my cardiologist, Dr. Michele Del Vicario, for visiting me every day; my parish priest Monsignor Lenihan, now deceased, who brought me daily communion; and everyone who visited me in the hospital and at home for all of their support.”
These days Dr. Stoneburner and Oppenheim don’t see one another often, only once a year, for Oppenheim’s annual heart MRI and checkup. But the news has been very good to date. The most recent test results show no sign of another aortic dissection.
Best of all, in September this father of three and grandfather of four was able to celebrate reaching a tremendous milestone: his 90th birthday.