STAMFORD — John Bonora wasn’t feeling well when he woke up one day last month.
By midafternoon, he was on an operating table at Stamford Hospital receiving lifesaving open heart surgery.
Bonora, 67, has a fuzzy memory of the day’s events, clouded by pain and anesthesia.
But, most importantly, he says: “I’m alive.”
Bonora thought he was having a heart attack on Aug. 9, but it turns out some weak tissue in his aorta — the main artery in the body — had torn just above his heart. It’s a condition known as an aortic dissection, and it’s deadly, according to the two Stamford Hospital doctors who treated Bonora.
Not only is Bonora alive to talk about his cardiac event, he made it to his daughter’s wedding just 10 days later.
Bonora rose out of his wheelchair to walk his daughter, Ashley Glaude, 32, down the aisle. He later danced with his daughter to “My Wish” by Rascal Flatts and gave a toast to the newlyweds.
“I remember one of the first things my dad said is ‘we have a wedding to get to,’” Glaude said.
Bonora gets choked up when he recalls his daughter’s wedding, and everything it took to get him there.
“I just wanted it to be the best day of her life,” he said.
“It was,” Glaude assured her father.
Right places, right time Before Bonora knew what exactly was wrong, he tried to drive himself to the emergency room.
But on the way there, crushing pain in his chest caused him to feel suddenly feverish.“I thought I was going to blackout, so I managed to bang a U-turn on the street and pulled up next to the Shippan firehouse,” Bonora said, sitting next to a window in his Shippan condo last week. “I sat down and just called out to the guys, and they came out of the truck and steadied me and they called EMS.”
Bonora knows that without the help of those city firefighters, he never would have made it to the hospital.
That could have killed him, according to Dr. Michael Coady, who performed Bonora’s heart surgery.
“The mortality rate on something like this is basically 100 percent without surgery,” Coady said. “And 20 percent of people with aortic dissections die before they make it to the hospital.”
But Bonora was lucky to encounter the right people every step of the way when his aorta gave out.
The emergency room doctors at Stamford Hospital sent Bonora to Dr. Ted Portnay, an interventional cardiologist and director of cardiac catheterization, who quickly ruled out a heart attack.
“There were no significant blockages in his arteries. We looked at the pumping chamber — the left ventricle — to see if there was any indication of stress or damage and that was fine, too,” Portnay said. “There was really no sign of a heart attack, but it was clear something was wrong.”
Finally, Portnay checked his aorta, though the symptoms Bonora was feeling weren’t typical of a dissection.
“Usually that presents itself as back pain, not chest and neck pain like John was feeling,” Portnay said.
But there it was: a small tear in the aorta.
“I said, ‘this has to be it, we need to get him to surgery,’” Portnay said.
Every second counts In the operating room, Coady found something even more distressing.
“John had blood accumulating around his heart, and his blood pressure was in the 60s,” the heart surgeon said. “We had literally seconds to get in there and relieve tension and get him on cardiac pulmonary bypass.”
After Coady was able to stabilize Bonora, it took nine hours and eight people — doctors, nurses and an anesthesiologist — to complete the surgery.
Coady and his team had to stop Bonora’s heart, remove the torn portion of his aorta and replace it with a graft of Dacron, a durable synthetic material.
It was a bit of a shock to Bonora and his family that the tall, fit man who still works every day in the legal field could experience such a life-threatening cardiac event.
“I just ran a 10K in June,” Bonora said. “I was running three or four miles a week before this happened.”
Bonora is home now, and he looks as fit as ever. He’ll start a rehabilitation course at Tully Health Center soon and then he hopes to get back to his hobbies, like running and traveling.
“I’ll take it one step at a time, but I hope I can take a step back from work and do some traveling, maybe even finish some of the books on my shelf,” he said. “I’m just going to live.”