Every day the world of medicine is breaking ground and pushing new boundaries of what is possible. Luckily, South Jersey is home to some of the best hospitals and health care providers with a roster of talented medical professionals who are leading the way. Whether someone is looking to improve their quality of life or tragedy strikes and emergency care is needed, there are countless accounts of remarkable recovery happening every day. The following stories showcase some of these amazing turnarounds. They illustrate the dedication of the doctors, the resolve of the patients, but perhaps just as important, they detail the bond that is formed between the two when all is said and done and why these connections make a lasting imprint on all involved.
Brigitte Shipley was just a day removed from ankle surgery when she woke up feeling nauseous. The following morning, the feeling persisted but was also accompanied by dizziness. Her husband Dane called an ambulance, but when it arrived Shipley told them she was feeling better and didn’t need to go to the hospital. The next day she found herself in Kennedy Hospital’s ER.
“I got up to go to the bathroom and I thought I was going to pass out, I couldn’t breathe. … There was something wrong,” Shipley recalls.
When she arrived, Dr. Neel Parikh greeted her in the emergency room and suspected that she might have a blood clot in her leg and possibly in her lungs. She was diagnosed with a massive pulmonary embo - lism. “In layman’s terms, she had a heart attack to the lungs, which is one of the life threatening complications after surgery,” Parikh says.
Once the clot was confirmed, Kennedy’s Critical Care Team got involved and interventional radiology moved to insert a catheter to get rid of the clot. That is when Shipley began to cough up blood. From there, her oxygen levels started to become unsafe and her blood pressure was dropping. A breathing tube had to be inserted and treatment had to become more aggressive. But that also came with risks. The breathing machine raises the pressure in the chest, so with the clot already there it increased the risk of cardiac arrest, according to Dr. Philip Willsie, an intensivist who assisted in the treatment.
“She looked like she was in impending cardiac arrest,” says Willsie of the severity of the rapidlychanging situation. “Right now, at this blood pressure, her kidneys are going to fail. She’s going to have brain damage, she’s going to have a heart attack … she’s going to die.”
“The adrenaline is flowing, everything tightened up inside as soon as I heard the rapid response call. I just stopped, dropped and ran because I knew exactly what was going on,” says Parikh. “Now she looks gray, has no blood pressure. CPR was never initiated, but she was well on her way.”
A combination of clot busting medicine, blood thinners and other medication helped somewhat stabilize Shipley. But, as Willsie recalls, she had an unreadable oxygen level and blood pressure for 30 minutes or more. “In those situations, you typically expect people to have some degree, if not severe, damage to organs, especially your brain. I didn’t know if she would wake up,” he says.
After Shipley was moved from the ER to ICU, Parikh tracked her progress in the computer system. “When I woke up, I thought I was going to see ‘expired’ because that’s how bad she was,” he says, holding back his emotion. “When they took her upstairs, I kept logging in and checking until my shift was over. You don’t want to keep looking because it’s like a bad omen, but I saw she still had a room assignment, that’s how you can tell the patient is still there. At least she was alive, but I didn’t know about long term.”
When Willsie left Shipley’s side that day, he didn’t return to work for another three days. He had similar feelings that despite the efforts of the many involved that night, her outcome was not a good one. When he went to check on her, he heard unexpected news—Shipley had recovered and was discharged from the hospital.
“A few days later and she’s out of the hospital. I said, ‘Do you believe this?’ We were both shaking our heads,” Parikh says.
“That’s the best save, if you want to call it that, that I remember having,” says Willsie. “Someone who was that sick with that many things going against them, to turn around that quickly was pretty significant.”
“It makes me grateful for every day I open my eyes, I tell you that,” says Shipley. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”
Lillia "Lily" Conway
At the ripe age of 20, you never expect to be told that you have a tumor in your leg—or that you may not be able to move your foot for a while postsurgery. But for Lily Conway, this was a reality.
A student at Camden County College (CCC) studying theater, a big part of Conway’s every day is being active, especially dancing in theater productions. Keeping up with her fitness routine, Conway started to notice some pain on the outside of her right kneecap. Thinking it was only a muscle discrepancy, she would massage it after her workouts.
“As months went on, I got a knot and I thought, oh it’s just inflamed, I’ll be fine,” explains Conway. “Eventually I couldn’t even work out with it and six months later [my mom] said, ‘Let’s go to the doctor, it’s time.’”
After seeing a local pediatrician and getting Xrays on what was now the size of a tennis ball on Conway’s right leg, it was determined that the mass was a tumor. That is when Conway and her family sought out Dr. Alexandre Arkader, an orthopedic surgeon with CHOP at Virtua Voorhees.
“We had an X-ray and she clearly had a tumor growing on the top of her fibula,” explains Arkader. “We had to determine what kind of tumor it was, whether it was a benign tumor or a malignant tumor. That’s why we did more tests. …We determined that it was benign but a very aggressive tumor involving 3-4 inches, very large.” Determining that Conway had a giant cell tumor of the bone, Arkader decided on surgery.
In the meantime, Conway performed in Little Shop of Horrors at CCC showing just how much determination she had for success even with a giant tumor on her leg.
On May 10, 2017—the day after Conway’s spring semester concluded—Arkader performed an almost five-hour surgery to remove the tumor while protecting her surrounding nerves. Because of the risk of having the tumor come back, Arkader removed the entire fibula from around the knee, stating that it’s not an essential bone.
“Before she woke up, I talked to her mom and said she’s not going to be moving her foot yet, the nerve is OK and she will probably recover but she will probably have some deficiency,” Arkder explains. “She woke up moving everything after surgery.”
Having some knee ligaments reconstructed during surgery, Conway was in a full leg brace in a locked position for six weeks. On June 20, Arkader removed the brace and Conway walked freely for the first time.
“Now it’s still kind of weird to walk,” Conway says. “I have a slight limp but I think that is a mental thing now, I just need to tell myself, ‘You are good.’”
And when it comes to Arkader and her pediatric nurse practitioner, Amy Rapino, Conway says her team was more than great.
“I’m glad that I have those two,” Conway says. “I don’t know what it would have been like without him and her. I feel like any other doctor I wouldn’t have been comfortable with.”
While Rapino wasn’t on the surgical side for Conway, she is her go-to person on the clinical side of things. Rapino says, “It’s been an honor to be that support for Lily.”
Nicole & Jonathon Mazza
Nicole Mazza knew another diet plan was not going to be the answer. After years of struggling with her weight and yoyoing back and forth, she was beginning to become mentally drained. She was also worried that the unhealthy lifestyle that she and her husband Jonathan were living was having a negative impact on the couple’s two children, Angie and J.J. Then Mazza hit a breaking point while on a family vacation.
“We were on vacation and we were going on a ride and [the safety bar] wouldn’t go down, so I had to do the walk of shame out. I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to my child or have [them] not be able to do something because of me,” Mazza says.
That led her to meet Dr. Emeka Acholonu, a bariatric surgeon with Virtua who was recommended to her as she explored the possibility of gastric bypass surgery. While Jonathan was weary about this path, Mazza moved forward with the procedure in December 2015. After seeing her success, Jonathan followed suit six months later. To date the couple has lost a combined 238 pounds. And they have not only changed their lives, but their children’s as well in a group effort to become healthier as a family. When it’s time for dinner, there is portion control and they’ve cut out carbs. When other kids are having candy, their kids opt for a piece of fruit.
“I don’t think we would be as successful if we didn’t do this as a family and implemented our new lifestyle with our children,” Mazza says.
Since the surgeries the entire Mazza family has become more active, exercising regularly both at the gym and at home. Nicole has even gone from assisting her daughter’s softball team to coaching and Jonathan can be found after the game playing with the kids and running the bases. “[That’s] something we would have never been able to do, or would have been embarrassed to do before the surgery,” says Nicole.
Of course, the surgery is not a magical fix, there is a lot of hard work and a level of commitment that needs to take place too. “If you are not committed, you can absolutely revert back,” Acholonu says, adding that some patients may also experience a plateau where the weight is no longer coming off and they can become discouraged.
“We know the surgery works, but sometimes there are other things that are happening [in your body]. Sometimes there is a false plateau, you are exercising and losing weight, but you step on the scale and it may remain constant, but actually that is a good thing,” says Acholonu. “I tell them, ‘Keep doing what you are doing, it is good, you are getting toned, building muscle.’”
For the entire Mazza family, this new outlook on life has given them a renewed spirit and the bond they have formed with Acholonu is evident in their interactions.
“There’s a bond with this type of surgery, it goes beyond the doctor/patient relationship,” says Acholonu.
“I’ve told the doc this numerous times, if he didn’t prolong my life, he saved my life. … I don’t think [saying] ‘thank you’ is enough,” Jonathan adds.
For Kim Marshall, enjoying her favorite pastime of riding horses seemed like a distant memory. The now 29-year-old spent seven years of her life in severe hip pain, with no diagnosis or treatment—even after consulting countless doctors and enduring hours of physical therapy with no relief.
“Over the years it just got worse and worse,” explains Marshall. “I pretty much just lived with it and then after I had my daughter, it got severe. I couldn’t sit for too long, couldn’t stand for too long, I couldn’t go to work as a nurse without pain. … I couldn’t do much of anything.”
Not willing to give up, Marshall ultimately found Dr. Sean McMillan, chief of surgery and orthopedics at Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County, who, as luck would have it, was Fellowship-trained in arthroscopic surgery of the shoulder, hip and knee and knew right away she had a labral hip tear—wherein cartilage is worn down, resulting in bone-on-bone pain.
“Her story—you could have Googled it—was right by the book as far as what you would describe and then her examination just corroborated it,” says McMillan.
“In a young person, someone who is motivated, this surgery is probably one of the most rewarding because you can get them back doing what they want, relatively quickly in the scheme of things,” he adds.
McMillan performed an arthroscopic surgery on Marshall’s right hip in September 2016. “It was immediate relief and [McMillan] told me that would happen,” says Marshall. “Within maybe a week, I was on crutches and able to start physical therapy.”
Despite the successful surgery, Marshall still experienced pain in her left hip. “Most of the time it’s usually depensatory, meaning one hip is just hurting because you’re putting all the weight on it,” explains McMillan. “Unfortunately in Kim’s case, she was someone who had tears in both hips. … The literature says less than 20 percent of the time you have to do both hips, usually it’s just one.”
That November, McMillan performed another arthroscopic surgery on Marshall, this time, on her left hip. “You’re always nervous going into the second one because not only do I have to get a good outcome, I have to match the other outcome. … You’re worried it’s not considered a success so it was a little daunting,” he says. Luckily, the second surgery was a success, as Marshall once again experienced immediate relief. Post-operatively, Marshall worked with a physical therapist up until February 2017, while also doing home exercises, to regain strength and function of her hips.
“I’m still getting strength, but for living like that for so long, not really knowing there was a fix ... and the fact that I could find Dr. McMillan and have him fix me, to the point where I can do what I love to do and not be so focused on the pain, is beyond what I could ever ask for,” shares Marshall.
“I waited six months after each hip and then I started riding my horse again and I didn’t have the pain,” she continues. “I can run around and play with my daughter, swim, jump and run. I can stand long hours at a shift and not be in severe pain, I can take care of my patients and not be thinking about the fact that my back and hips are killing me.”
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” adds McMillan, who couldn’t be happier in helping Marshall get back on the horse again.
It was a just a normal afternoon at work for Larry Ferringo, who was busy at his desk when he started to get a weird sensation in his upper abdomen area which he dismissed originally as a bad case of indigestion. Then he started pouring sweat and coworkers began to remark that he didn’t look so hot. Soon after, he was rolling around on the floor, writhing in pain.
The next thing Ferringo recalls is being in an ambulance when a paramedic began to put leads on his chest to perform an EKG. “I asked; ‘Am I having a heart attack?’ I remember him looking at me and saying, ‘Yes,’” Ferringo recalls.
“I just remember saying someone has to call my wife, someone has to get my daughter from daycare, that’s all I cared about at that point and the next thing I remember is waking up in the ER.”
When he arrived at Inspira’s emergency room in Woodbury, he was greeted by cardiologist Dr. Kurt Kaulback. “[Larry] was having a big anterior wall [myocardial infarction]. In the old days, it was the widowmaker,” Kaulback says of the situation’s severity.
While under Kaulback’s care, Ferringo arrested again and doctors were having a tough time resuscitating him. That’s when a Code Blue protocol was issued. Because it was near the end of the shift, there were plenty who responded. “If this was 9 at night, it would have been the tech, two RNs and me, that would have been it,” Kaulback says. “I had three times that many people, and not that I needed that many bodies, but it ended up being critical that we had that many minds thinking about it.”
With each passing minute, Ferringo’s chances for resuscitation got less and less. At this point his arteries had been opened up, a balloon pump inserted as well as a temporary pacemaker and he was breathing with the help of a ventilator.
“We’ve been doing this for maybe 30 minutes and I got nothing left,” Kaulback says. “We are at a less than 2-3 percent survival rate. I looked at the critical care specialist and head nurse of the ICU and said, ‘What do you guys think?’ They both looked at me and said, ‘Five more minutes.’”
In less than five minutes, Ferringo began to regain blood pressure and his heart rhythm stabilized. He had turned the corner in remarkable fashion.
“The best part of the story for me is I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve had to call codes and say, ‘We are done, this is over and it’s not going to happen,’” says Kaulback. “I was 30 seconds from making that decision for Larry. It’s one of those events in my career that will always be in the back of my mind when I’m dealing with an emergency.”
A few days later when Ferringo woke up, he was understandably scared. When he couldn’t remember his wife Stacey’s birthday, he worried about memory loss. He feared he wouldn’t remember much about his 3- year-old daughter. He didn’t want to close his eyes and go to sleep.
Slowly and surely, things began coming back to him and he started to feel a semblance of normalcy, which he credits to the Inspira staff.
“Every nurse cared, every doctor I met, genuinely cared,” Ferringo says. “They wanted me to do well and get out of the hospital and carry on with my life.
“Everything is OK, I go day by day. I don’t look too far ahead and I don’t look in the past. I’m living to stay alive. I enjoy the little things now with my wife and daughter; that’s what’s important to me.”
After getting diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2006, JoAnn Bliss had basically accepted the fact that her life was going to be cut short by the disease.
It was her granddaughter Alexa who finally inspired her to fight back. Now in her early 60s, Bliss has been cleared of Hepatitis C for the last 18 months after undergoing treatment at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. Her road to recovery started about five years ago with an assist from Alexa.
“My daughter and then-10-year-old granddaughter had just moved in with us and she was getting ready for her first day at her new school,” Bliss recalls. “It hit me that I wasn’t going to see her grow up. So I called the town board of health and asked, ‘What do I do?’”
Bliss—who constantly felt fatigued and had simple colds turn into prolonged illnesses as a result of Hepatitis C—eventually found her way to Dr. Hisham ElGenaidi, medical director of hepatology at Lourdes. She was diagnosed with liver cancer and had a procedure called a radiofrequency ablation to remove several tumors, which have not returned since.
The next step was to tackle the Hepatitis C virus, and Bliss tried a new medication called Harvoni for 12 weeks. She was cleared of the virus for a month, but it then came back, and ElGenaidi wanted to try a more aggressive approach that included the antiviral medication Ribavirin.
“Unfortunately, [Harvoni] failed for her, so we kind of went outside the box a little bit,” ElGenaidi says. “Her insurance company was good enough that it allowed us to do a second treatment that there was really no data for, but it just made more clinical sense. She trusted me that it would work and thank God, it did.”
The six-month treatment did not come without serious side effects, however.
“For six months I laid on the couch, thought I was going to die and wished I would,” Bliss says. “But ever since we stopped that, I’ve been cured. Dr. E saved my life—he’s amazing.”
Bliss had no idea she even had Hepatitis C until donating blood through a drive at the law office she worked for. Now she encourages others to get tested.
“If you have it, find out and get it fixed,” she says. “You can save yourself and everybody around you a lot of heartache.”
Bliss has seen Alexa grow into “an artistic, amazing young woman” who is now a junior in high school, and she knows she has Lourdes to thank.
“I have a lot of great days that are wonderful gifts,” she says, “and if it wasn’t for these guys, I wouldn’t be here.”
A 39-year-old undergoing knee replacement surgery is extremely rare, and the same person undergoing the same surgery on the other knee is almost unheard of, but that’s exactly what happened to Michael Bazulis of Pennsauken. The now 42-year-old suffered from “unbelievable, throbbing pain” and was unable to even walk at times. As a father of five children between the ages of 8 and 18—all of whom are on the autism spectrum—and custodian for the Pennsauken School District, not being on his feet could not be an option anymore.
“I was at my wits’ end,” Bazulis recalls.
Bazulis went to a few doctors seeking help, but none considered performing surgery on him because of his young age. That’s when his father, Al, recommended Dr. Michael Harrer from the Rothman Institute, after Harrer performed successful hip replacement surgery on him. Despite the potential risks, Harrer didn’t think twice. His mission was to relieve Bazulis of excruciating pain, give him his life back and be able to take care of his kids who needed him, and the only way to accomplish that was double knee replacement surgery.
“I don’t do patients that young because the longevity of the replacement is 20 years on an older person. … But he was so distraught and so unable to function. It was a very special case for him.”
And it was a special case for Harrer and the Rothman Institute as well, considering Bazulis was one of the youngest patients he’s ever worked on.
“It’s nerve-wracking because he’s my patient for life,” Harrer says. “Once I operate on someone I follow them forever, and if there’s ever going to be an issue, I’ll be on top of it, but I hope there’s never an issue. That’s the fear of [operating on] a young person; you don’t know what the future is going to hold.”
But Harrer and Bazulis know what the present holds—a new lease on life. “You meet his family— his wife struggling with five children and Mike couldn’t keep up with them. Now he’s ahead of them,” Harrer says. “It’s only been a year since the [first] surgery and the [second] surgery was two months ago and he’s doing fantastic.”
“I needed this for my children so I can be there for their needs, and now I’m more active with them,” Bazulis says. “I’m able to take walks with them, throw the football around, shoot basketball and do everything a father should be able to do with his kids. I’m more active at work and more productive in life as a whole. I feel like I got a new lease on life, and I owe that to Dr. Harrer.”
When Brock Barber retired as a Hamilton Township police officer in 2003, the Bordentown resident was ready to slow down a bit and start a part-time job with the Hamilton Township School District. That was until his son found him in the backyard—banging on the door, barefoot and talking to himself. Barber and his family didn’t know it at the time, but they were symptoms of liver failure, and he found out soon after he needed a liver transplant.
“It changes your whole life, that diagnosis,” he says.
Barber was on the transplant list for an agonizing 11 months, and when he was finally told that a liver was waiting for him and he needed to get to the hospital immediately, his former police coworkers made sure he would get there the quickest way possible. His wife drove him from their Shore house to Robbinsville Airport where the police officers greeted him and transported him to Jefferson Hospital by helicopter.
“I remember flying in the helicopter and thinking to myself, is this the last time I’m going to see anyone?” Barber recalls.
Awaiting Barber at Jefferson was Dr. Cataldo Doria, the director of the division of transplantation, who didn’t exactly know the intricate surgery he was about to embark on.
“The liver is the biggest gland in the human body and one of the unique characteristics of the liver is it is affected by two major vessels,” Doria explains. “One of the major pipes [going] to Brock’s liver was completely occluded—we find this situation in approximately 15 to 20 percent of all our patients. The surgery was much more complicated and I can certainly say this surgery was one of the most complex I’ve done.”
Barber, who was told he wouldn’t have lived another six months, is forever grateful for Doria and his new lease on life, and the two built a unique friendship since. Doria has welcomed Barber and his wife as guests to numerous activities once he was fully recovered—such as Doria’s Shore house in Long Beach Island and a Jefferson black tie gala. “We call each other asking for advice and keep in touch often; he’s a great person and a great friend,” says Barber. Barber eventually met his donor’s family and was so touched by their generosity, he decided to pay it forward and made it his mission to educate as many people as he can about organ donation.
He says when people hear about his story; it could sound “depressing, but it’s not,” because it has changed his whole aspect on life for the better and made him a different person.
“When you’re a police officer for almost 30 years, you’ve seen it all and become a little callous, but after the transplant and thinking about everything and going through the experience as a donor family and what they went through on their end, I’m an emotional wreck,” Barber says. “I feel everything now. It changes you and your perspective on life. Someone’s lost a loved one and now I have that second chance to do things.”
Robert Kneisler flatlined in June 2014 on the ominous date of Friday the 13th. He hadn’t felt well for days and when he collapsed on his living room floor, the last thing he remembers was telling his stepson to call 9-1-1. When he woke up in the hospital, doctors informed Kneisler he was septic and that several inches of his small intestines had failed due to lack of blood from the heart. He would have to wear an ileostomy bag to help drain his small intestines, something doctors told him could not be removed because his heart was too weak.
Kneisler’s spirit was shattered, and he felt as if his life had no value. Then he turned to Deborah Heart and Lung Center for a second opinion.
Dr. Renee Bullock-Palmer, Kneisler’s attending cardiologist and Deborah’s director of non-invasive cardiac imaging, reviewed his images. “His heart was functioning at only 18 percent, but we wanted to see if there was viable tissue. If we could open the vessel [with stents] to feed blood through then we hoped that would return function,” she says. “I told him that we could get the bottom of his heart working.”
Kneisler was then in the hands of Dr. Vincent Varghese, attending cardiac interventionist, who placed three stents, and also had some words of advice for the patient after the procedure: to quit smoking.
“The procedure is what it is and only goes so far,” says Varghese, “but if patients leave and continue with bad habits, then that work is not going to last.” Kneisler quit immediately and hasn’t had a cigarette since. “Bob quitting smoking is credit to his dedication to get back to a meaningful life,” Varghese says.
In addition to that, Kneisler, who lives in Maple Shade, built himself a home gym and replicated the movements he learned in cardiac rehab. He was so active, at one point Bullock-Palmer told him to slow down.
Kneisler’s heart function has gone from 18 percent to 48 percent and the ileostomy bag is officially removed. Looking back on the experience gets him very emotional. He hesitates to think of where he’d be had he not gone to Deborah for that second opinion.
“I had given up. I thought I wasn’t worth it. When Dr. Bullock-Palmer told me they saw good tissue, it was the start of changing my life,” he says. “I got my life back because of these two. They are godsends.” Kneisler, whose wife sadly passed away unexpectedly in 2013, says he’s found new happiness in life especially since reconnecting with his high school sweetheart. “Life is great,” he says, with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 6 (September, 2017).
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