Considering his recent accomplishments, you can hardly blame Mort Blankman for feeling 10 feet under the weather.
The 88-year-old Nelson County man may have set two records last fall when, at the tender age of 87, he became perhaps the oldest man to survive cardiogenic shock and one of the oldest to be placed on a machine that both poured oxygen into his blood and pumped around his body and come back off it.
And the former U.S. Army Special Forces officer and federal employee did both in a 24-hour period while getting two stents and a new arterial valve along the way.
“I’m feeling pretty punk,” Blankman said from his Nellysford bed where he is recovering from a nine-month-long string of medical issues. “I had never really had a sick day in my life. I’m very fortunate that I went through my careers and my life without a serious medical issue. I’ve made up for it, now.”
Indeed, he has.
“As far as we can tell, he is the oldest patient to go through this and survive,” said Dr. Nishtha Sodhi, the structural/interventional cardiologist at the University of Virginia Medical Center whose medical team treated Blankman back in October.
“Before all this happened, he was an otherwise healthy guy with no real serious medical conditions who was walking and exercising and just doing his thing,” she said. “He was in good physical condition and had no idea all of this would happen.”
That’s probably just as well.
“One minute I was feeling good, and then I was being treated for a problem that had developed and the next thing I was out of it,” Blankman recalled. “It’s been an experience.”
Blankman’s story is one of bad luck and good timing. It’s a move from the big city to the small town with top-notch nearby hospitals. It starts with Mort Blankman and his wife, Gail moving from Baltimore to Nellysford last fall after Gail retired from the federal government. They dragged out the move to volunteer with the Wintergreen Music Festival and recently finished when Blankman suffered a urinary tract infection in October.
A quick trip to nearby Augusta Health community hospital for treatment led to some classic foreshadowing by an attending physician.
“He took my pulse and looked at me funny,” Blankman recalled. “He said ‘do you know that you have a heart murmur?’ I said I had no clue. He said ‘you have one.’ I thought that was odd.”
He had no idea how odd it would get.
After being treated and given antibiotics, the Blankmans returned home and retired to bed as usual, but the plot thickened.
“He woke me up about 4:15 a.m. with the sound of his breathing. It was awful,” Gail Blankman said. “He couldn’t lift his head or move and when I went to help him I could feel that he was just burning up.”
A quick temperature check registered about 104 degrees. She called one of the new neighbors, a retired doctor, who said to call the Wintergreen Rescue Squad and return to the hospital. She did and they did and he wound up being treated for sepsis related to the urinary tract infection.
“He was in a couple of days being treated for sepsis and the doctor called and said he was doing well and that he’d probably be released in a couple of hours,” Gail Blankman recalled. “I called and talked to Mort, who had a regular room with a telephone, and he was fine. When I got there, they had him back in ICU.”
Tests and Mort’s declining condition convinced Augusta Health doctors that they needed to transfer Mort to UVa, where he was admitted to the regular inpatient floor.
“We’ve been so lucky with having great neighbors who didn’t even know us because I had no idea where the hospital was,” Gail Blankman said. “The only place in Charlottesville that I’d been to at that time was Trader Joe’s. I turned to the lady who drove me in and said ‘have you even met, Mort?’ I can’t tell you how wonderful our neighbors are.”
The new neighbor that brought Gail in also gave her landmarks and directions so she could get back again. She would need the help because Mort’s breathing got worse and he was transferred to the cardiac care unit.
“There we ran multiple tests including an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart. This showed several important things,” said Sodhi. “His aortic valve – the main valve allowing blood to flow out of his heart to the body – was severely blocked up, a disease called aortic stenosis. This was a new diagnosis for him.”
The other test results would prove new to Blankman as well.
“His heart muscle function was very weak and he was in acute congestive heart failure,” Sodhi said. “His heart muscle and blood work suggested that he an acute heart attack from artery blockage. He was a guy who went from being healthy and taking hardly any medicines to quickly being critically ill.”
“I had no idea when that happened,” Blankman said. “I hadn’t felt sick until [the infection]. It was news to me.”
Blankman’s bad luck was about to run up against good. UVa has a multi-disciplinary approach to cardiac care and Sodhi and cardiac surgeon Dr. Kenan Yount took on his case.
“The heart team is comprised of structural and interventional cardiologists like myself and cardiac surgeons like Dr. Yount to come up with unique treatment plans for each patient,” Sodhi said. “After extensive discussion with the patient, the decision was made to treat him minimally invasively rather than with traditional open heart surgery.”
Yount and Sodhi discussed with the Blankmans the options of surgery or less invasive catheter procedures to open up his arteries and valve and get the blood flowing again. They would send him to the catheter laboratory, or cath lab, for the procedures.
“We were like babes in Medicine Land,” Gail Blankman said. “We had no idea what a cath lab was except that it sounded like a place with a lot of equipment and test tubes.”
Running a catheter up Blankman’s leg artery into the heart, Sodhi conversed with Blankman, who was under light anesthesia, filling him in on the process as it went along.
But Blankman’s luck was about to go bad, again.
“I remember that Dr. Sodhi was telling me what she was doing and talking to me as it was going on and suddenly I felt a terrible pain in my heart,” Mort said. “She said that wasn’t supposed to happen and the next thing I knew, they put me out.”
Blankman’s heart had stopped. The valve would not let blood pass into his body. He was in cardiogenic shock.
If you’re going to have that kind of bad luck, it’s best to have the good luck of being on the table in the cardiac care unit of a major hospital where they can treat you immediately.
“We put him on the ECMO, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine that takes over the heart and lung functions to circulate blood through the body and oxygenate the blood,” Sodhi recalled. “He was completely dependent on that to live. Then we had a conversation with the family.”
That would be Gail Blankman.
“They said he had a cardiac arrest and told me about the machine and made it all sound very matter-of-fact while I was going ‘what?’ They asked if we wanted to continue treatment and I knew in my heart that Mort wanted to continue living, so I said yes,” Gail Blankman recalled.
“We were lucky because we had planned on going to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and Mort could have had that heart attack on a mountain road,” she said.
Mort Blankman survived the heart-stopping moment. He recovered from the body stress of having a machine provide oxygenated blood to your body. His luck, however, wasn’t done with him just yet.
“He woke up and he couldn’t talk, which they said was normal, but he pointed at his stomach where the feeding tube was inserted,” Gail Blankman recalled. “It had dislodged and the liquid food wasn’t going into his stomach but into his abdominal cavity.”
Mort Blankman had another battle with another round of sepsis that resulted in him being on dialysis. Surgery resulted in an incision that must heal from the inside out so wound care is a necessity.
A series of minor setbacks have continued to plague him as his recovery has moved on and his body slowly repairs itself from some serious complications, including a bed sore. But the Blankmans are home now, their neighbors continuing to help with food and meals and therapists running to and fro along with trips to doctors for checkups and treatments.
Being it good or bad, as far as Mort Blankman’s concerned, his luck has held out.
“I’m making progress. I hope I’m making progress. It’s hard to tell sometimes because I don’t feel better every day. They tell me it will take some time to recover,” Mort Blankman said. “I would feel better if I wasn’t having complications, but I can say nothing but good about the doctors and about the whole experience.
“I’m still here. I’m pretty lucky.”