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Eric’s Story

Neurocritical Care

During his four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included a tour of the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom, Eric Zimmerman suffered one minor injury. He separated his shoulder while heaving boxes of supplies. It was only after his return to Cincinnati that he entered the fight of his life.

For the high school English teacher and University of Cincinnati graduate, it began with a routine tonsillectomy, an elective procedure intended to curb recurrent tonsillitis. The procedure was uneventful, and Eric recalls coming home from the hospital and making French toast. It is the last thing he remembers before a rare post-surgical complication closed his airway and sent him into a coma.

“At some point, my throat closed up and I was not getting any oxygen to my brain,” Eric says. When his family called to check in with him and got no answer, they came to his apartment and found him collapsed, barely breathing and “making a snoring noise.”

His life hanging in the balance, Eric was rushed to the closest hospital, which stabilized him, ran preliminary tests and told Eric’s family that his prognosis was grim. Meanwhile, a family member who was a physician intervened. Encouraged by one of Eric’s lab test results, he requested that Eric be transferred to the UC Medical Center, home of the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit (NSICU) and the region’s leading experts on trauma to the brain. Here, Eric would have his best chance at survival.

The neurocritical care team on duty went to work, and Jordan Bonomo, MD — a neurointensivist who would oversee Eric’s care — joined them in the middle of the night. During the next 72 hours, members of the neurocritical care team never left Eric’s side.

“When I saw the CT scan I said, ‘There’s a chance, but it looks tough, to be honest,’” Dr. Bonomo recalls. “There was a period of time when he was down and out and not breathing well. Then his lungs went haywire on us. He developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, a complication in the lungs that we see more often in neuro patients. It prevents the lungs from exchanging gases and providing oxygen to rest of the body. I told his family that his chances were not great, but that we would do everything we could.”

Fortunately, Eric was in a setting where subspecialty care and superior nursing experience were up to the challenge. Eric was also young. He had a strong heart. And he was a fighter. “Families tell us all the time their loved one is a fighter, and we see that when it’s true,” Dr. Bonomo says.

Five days later, Eric came out of his coma.

“Once they got me talking and my personality started to come through in conversation, they knew I’d be OK,” he says.

To this day, no one can explain Eric’s life-threatening allergic reaction following surgery. “The reaction was essentially unheard of,” Dr. Bonomo says. “We did genetic testing and still don’t know what it was – a delayed reaction to the anesthesia or a reaction to the pain medicine? We really don’t know. He didn’t take too much medicine, too little, or the wrong stuff. We still don’t have an answer. We left almost no stone unturned.”

Eric left the UC Medical Center after about two weeks. He was told a six-month rehabilitation process was likely, but after less than two weeks of outpatient therapy at the UC Health Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care, he felt ready to go back to teaching Shakespeare at Taft High School.

“I felt I had an obligation to my students to be there for them and to have them go through as little disruption as possible,” he says.

Being “thrown into the fire” of having to communicate with his students on a daily basis helped his recovery. But Eric admits that he probably went back to work too soon. “There were times when I wasn’t progressing as I would have liked,” he says. “Initially, my biggest obstacle was speaking, being able to talk at length to my kids, and I was struggling with my short-term memory. Then at some point I started ascending. I’d have a week when thought I had gotten better but was not sure. Then, three weeks later I would look back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve gotten a lot better.’”

Today, feeling “close to 100 percent,” Eric credits his neurocritical care team with sparing him from profound disability and for likely saving his life. “They were phenomenal,” he says. “I think of all the possibilities and am grateful. If I had not been at UC Health, I feel I wouldn’t have gotten some of the proactive measures and would not be functioning as I am.”

Treating patients like Eric is a privilege, Dr. Bonomo says. “Working at UC we often get patients at the end of the line. Hospitals send patients they can’t take care of to us.”

Eric’s family’s decision to transfer him to the UC Medical Center, he adds, “was the right move and the single most impactful element of his recovery.”

Dr. Bonomo felt a catch in his throat when he saw Eric recently. “He’s a father; I know what that means,” Dr. Bonomo says. “This is why we try so hard. I’ll never forget Eric, his tattoos, the story of where he came from and what he did for his country. What we do is a privilege and an honor. When we see an outcome like Eric’s, that makes it all worthwhile.”

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