Stricken Unitas gets fortunate break in latest comeback bid

John Steadman

March 08, 1993|By John Steadman

All his vital signs were good, and a comfortable John Unitas was talking to wife Sandra and daughter Janice in a room at Kernan Hospital. He had dinner and reported no discomfort with the new artificial right knee the surgeon had given him the day before. Suddenly, there was trouble breathing and a feeling of heavy pressure across the chest.

Doctors and nurses surrounded their well-known patient. They used all the normal medical procedures in trying to alleviate what they recognized as a heart problem, but the hoped-for reaction wasn't occurring. Response was nil.

Quickly, an important decision was made. It was going to be necessary for Unitas to be moved to the cardiac care unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Within minutes after arriving by ambulance, surgeons were intensely trying to correct an arterial blockage. The operation that followed on Friday night/Saturday morning called for a three-way heart bypass. Even though hospitals have become proficient in the delicate procedure, they are never routine.

"It was so lucky he was where he was," Sandra Unitas said. "I just believe the Lord interceded in John's best interests. He was at Kernan for the knee surgery and, as it turned out, this was important because when the heart became an issue he was where he got instant attention. The knee operation was totally unrelated to the heart. He was resting and doing well."

So Unitas, hero of incredible come-from-behind performances while steering his old team, the Baltimore Colts, to championship heights, was on the defensive. Indeed, he had a fight for his life. At this recovery point, optimism prevails although he's listed as "serious."

Being in a hospital when there's a heart problem is the only place to be. It was Bill Neill, a longtime Unitas friend and director of the physical therapy department at Kernan, who put the experience in perspective for the family when he reminded them, "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform."

Neill was referring to the fact John had an opportunity for immediate attention when the crisis arose. There was no delay. The situation was addressed and assessed.

Had he been on an airplane trip, in a hotel lobby or cutting grass at his residence near Baldwin, the chance to get assistance would have been delayed and the seriousness of his case compounded. To use a football analogy: Instead of third down and long yardage, Unitas was positioned at the goal line and ready to receive the best of medical care the profession could offer.

"Just two weeks ago," his wife said, "he went on a fishing trip with his boss to a lake in Venezuela. It could have happened then. And on Wednesday, the day before he had the knee operation, he mended fences at our property. He never complained. You know how he is. Please thank the public and the press for giving us the privacy we asked for and have received."

An older brother, Leonard, age 66, who had a heart attack 17 years ago but has returned to good health, arrived yesterday from Jacksonville, Fla., to be with John.

"We have a history of heart ailments in our family," Leonard said. "Five of our mother's brothers died with heart ailments. I think the fact John led an athletic life delayed any difficulties that might have been expected genetically. He looks good, his color is better and he is going to be fine."

There's even a chance if Unitas continues to show progress some mild knee exercise will be started in several days to help the leg toward what will be a lengthy rehabilitation. This will only be done if heart specialists agree such activity is appropriate.

The fact Unitas is in an otherwise strong physical condition, never having smoked, and, at 190, is six pounds lighter than when he played, represent positive signs toward his recovery. It was a potentially overwhelming crisis -- having to go through two operations within 36 hours, one lasting two hours and 45 minutes at Kernan on his leg and then the heart surgery that encompassed three hours at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Just as in football, the man teammates called Johnny U. always had an innate skill in "beating the clock," of doing more with the last two minutes than any quarterback in history. This time the outcome is far more important -- to the point of life or death.

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