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Giving Back Blog

  • Writer's pictureAscension Illinois Foundation

30 Years of Lives Saved, Starting with John's


Rudy Altergott, MD, and Bryan Foy, MD, started the cardiac surgery program at Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet 30 years ago this July.

It was what some might consider a perfect day for a 41-year-old husband and father in the prime of his life. John and his wife and kids had spent the day at the beach. They’d had a picnic.

And yet something — John couldn’t put his finger on it — was not quite right.

“I was panting like a dog all day long. I couldn’t catch my breath,” he said.

That evening — August 11, 1991 — when he and his family got home, John noticed that his leg was swollen. Acting on his hunch that something was wrong, he drove himself to the emergency room at his local hospital — what today is Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet.

“That was the only hospital around that was close to me,” he said.

Only weeks earlier, the hospital had launched an open-heart surgery program, the first in Will County. That stroke of fortune saved John’s life.

200 Surgeries Annually and nearly 10,000 to Date

July 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of when Rudy Altergott, MD, and Bryan Foy, MD, started the open-heart surgery program at Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet. Nearly 10,000 surgeries have been performed to date.

“They had the guts to hire people that weren’t afraid to venture into the field and to give them full rein to do their job,” John said. “They set the precedent for everything that’s going on now.”

“Coming to Saint Joe’s with Bryan Foy and being entrusted by this community to do their heart surgery for 30 years has been the greatest privilege of my medical career,” said Dr. Altergott. “When I think about the thousands of people who have put their lives in our hands, it is humbling. It’s been an honor to do this work.”

Today, Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet remains the only hospital in Will County providing open-heart surgeries and one of the largest open-heart programs in Illinois, performing an average of 200 surgeries per year.

With its strong track record, John said it’s important to keep up that high standard of quality care for people like him in Joliet who need it.

Blood Clot Causes Life-Threatening Pulmonary Embolism

When John got to the hospital on August 11, 1991, the care team ran tests and determined that a blood clot deep in his leg was causing his symptoms. He was admitted to the hospital.

A few days later — that Thursday — he suddenly felt something strange and sat up in his hospital bed. His skin started to turn gray.

“I was dead,” he said. “Even the nurse recognized what was going on.”

The nurse rushed for a doctor. The doctor rushed John to the cardiac surgery area, where the cardiac surgeons who pioneered Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet’s program had just gotten out of surgery. They suspected that John’s blood clot had traveled to his lung — that he had a potentially deadly pulmonary embolism. They knew they needed to act immediately to save him.

Split-Second Decision Leads to Life-Saving Surgery

John’s wife consented on the spot to the procedure. Intubated and anesthetized, John’s chest was opened and his heart put on bypass. The surgeons found a 10-centimeter blood clot blocking the right and left vein pulmonary arteries. With a ring forceps, they removed it, along with several smaller clots.

John was not out of the woods. He went into septic shock and had to be transferred by helicopter to another hospital where he spent several weeks on a ventilator and in intensive care. No one was sure if he was going to pull through.

When he woke up, he wondered what he was doing there. “Looking at my chest, I had this tape on my chest. I didn’t know what it was. I still didn’t know I had surgery,” he said.

On October 4, John finally got to go home.

“This Is What We Live For.”

John is 71 years old now. He said he often thinks about that August day 30 years ago, as well as the surgery and hospitalization that followed it.

He thinks about the split-second decision his wife made in 1991 after spending a day at the beach with their family in the prime of their life together: to allow surgeons to operate on her husband.

He thinks about the weeks he spent in the ICU, and imagines the experience may have been worse for his wife and parents than it was for him. How they could only visit him for 15 minutes at a time.

He thinks about the hours he spent laying in the hospital for two months, watching the clock and the crucifix on the wall, thinking of all he’d miss if he didn’t see the next minute. And he’s grateful for all the next minutes he’s gotten to see — the milestones and memories.

“They saved me. Somebody upstairs wanted me to live,” he said. “This is what we live for. Taking care of my wife. Being able to walk my daughter down the aisle. My son is a pharmacist. I got to see my kids graduate from college. It’s fun watching them grow up. And now I’ve got grandkids.”

John’s Reason for Pulling Through

For the past 12 years, John has been the caregiver for his wife, who was diagnosed with dementia the year he retired.

“Staying here with my wife, even though it is hard, I wouldn’t like to see where she would be if I wasn’t here,” John said. “That was my reason for pulling through, I guess.”

Over the years John has had other blood clots and complications. He has problems with his lungs and heart. His leg retains water. His circulation and heart rate are affected.

John’s health isn’t perfect. Neither is life. But he’s been here for it — and for his wife, who has been in hospice going on two years.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without the doctors stepping in and doing what they did. It was definitely a life-changing thing when it happened,” he said. “She was there the whole time with me.”

Thanks to her life-saving decision 30 years ago, and thanks to the team at Ascension Saint Joseph - Joliet, John has been there with her the whole time, too.

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