Tony was the picture of health. A physically fit and energetic 47. Last Sept. 16, tennis pro Tony was in his 3rd hour of lessons, a playing lesson with 3 friends, all doctors. “They talk trash, tell me I’m no good, try to hit me at the net,” Tony says. “They never get the best of me.”
Normally Tony gives as good as he gets. This time he was uncharacteristically quiet. One of the docs said, “You’re not yourself today.”
“I can’t catch my breath,” Tony said.
Dr. Wadi Gomero-Cure checked Tony’s pulse. “Your heart’s racing. Sit down.”
Cardiologist Eric Pressman was playing on the next court. He got out his stethoscope, massaged Tony’s carotid artery. His heartrate kept increasing.
“You’re going to the hospital now,” Dr. Pressman said.
Tennis pal Dr. Alan Glover called ahead. A room was waiting at Venice Regional Hospital. Tony was hooked up to an IV and monitor, still in afib. Cardizem didn’t help. Ibutilide did. Several hours later, Tony’s heart returned to normal. He was released.
A subsequent stress test showed an abnormality. Follow up tests were scheduled. A nuclear stress test showed a possible blockage. Tony was scheduled for a heart catheterization. 2 weeks later. Why the delay? Tony had tickets to the Miami vs Florida State football game. Tony “felt fine.” As an alum, he’s a diehard U. of Miami fan. “He bleeds orange and green,” girlfriend Leslie LeBlanc says. (Aside to sports fans: Miami lost by one.)
On Oct. 13, Tony was prepped for the cath. Dr. Glover was on duty, wearing a silver surgery cap. Leslie donned one, too, calling it “a Jiffy Pop hat.”
“Nobody was too worried,” Leslie says. “Worst case– Tony would need a stent and have to stay overnight.”
Dr. Glover checked on Tony’s cath procedure and returned to the waiting room. His face was somber. “It’s serious,” he said. He led Leslie and Tony’s dad to an office. Dr. Edmund Bermudez, Tony’s cardiologist, showed them imagees from the heart cath. One of Tony’s 2 major arteries was over 95% blocked. The cardiologist said, “If 2 platelets tried to come through at once, Tony would have died.” Tony needed 3 or 4 bypasses. He could not leave the hospital.
“In an instant, life changed,” Leslie says.
Dr. Bermudez was amazed Tony had functioned as well as he had. His heart was working at 20% efficiency. He had taught 7 and ½ hours of lessons the day before.
Leslie’s a trainer who runs boot camp at Laurel Oak C.C. in Sarasota. I’m one of her groupies. (Admittedly the least limber and weakest, but—hey—I show up. And I excel at complaining.) A tennis player, Leslie met Tony at LOCC. They’ve been together for almost 4 years.
Before his surgery, Leslie warned Tony, “This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever been through.”
Tony’s open heart surgery took 5 and 1/2 hours. After, Leslie and Tony’s parents were anxious to see their patient. At first, he resisted.
After receiving 4 bypasses with veins harvested from his muscular legs, Tony was stuck full of tubes. Coming to, he gasped for breath. “It felt like a truck was parked on my chest. I didn’t want anyone to see me until I could breathe. The fluid tubes in my lungs burned like a blow torch. The first hour after I was extubated, I didn’t think I’d make it.”
Tony had served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm (air recon and topography). Just out of surgery, Tony recalled his naval flight training. “They deliberately stress you out under water,” he recalls. “A lot of people passed out and turned blue. Aviators call it ‘getting Smurfed.’”
Tony never got Smurfed. When the tubes were removed, he concentrated on what he’d been taught: taking longer, deeper breaths. “Remembering that training got me through.”
Dr. Glover checked on his friend and reported back to the family every 30 minutes. Leslie says they waited 5 or 6 hours after Tony’s surgery to see him. Tony says it felt like 5 minutes.
Tony was philosophical about the outcome. After surgery, he said to God, “If you need to take me, I’m fine with that. I have no fear.”
Before his operation, Tony’s cardiac surgeon, Dr. Roberto Cervera, asked if he attended church regularly. Tony said no. Dr. Cervera suggested he start doing so after his surgery. “Clearly,” his doc said, “God had a hand in your survival. Your life could have ended on the tennis court.”
While he has yet to become a regular churchgoer, he did follow his surgeon’s advice about taking it easy for 2 months. Tony’s now returned to the courts giving lessons. Not serving or hitting overheads, but otherwise back in action.
The ordeal has changed him.
“I was hit with the reality that tomorrow’s not promised. I’m probably less of a joker than I was. I make sure my parents and friends know how much I appreciate them. I tell Leslie I love her about 100 times a day.”
And he has a “weird craving” for cheese pizza.
Tony’s mother refers to Drs. Pressman, Glover and Gomero-Cure as Tony’s guardian angels. She prays for them every day. Thanks, Tony and Leslie, for sharing this inspiring story of recovery. Lucky (???) you were hitting with capable doctor friends. And that Heaven didn’t have an opening for a cheese pizza eating tennis playing jokester.