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Plane Shot Down: Doctors Detail Pilot's Prognosis

Aired April 23, 2001 - 12:35   ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: We would like to bring you the comments coming from a news conference in Reading, Pennsylvania -- West Reading, actually at Reading Hospital -- from the physician who has taken care of the pilot of that plane that was shot down by Peruvian authorities over the weekend.

Speaking now in these scenes is Dr. James Coffey, a vascular surgeon at the Reading Hospital and Medical Center. He has just concluded an operation on the legs of Kevin Donaldson, the pilot. Mr. Donaldson is actually speaking in this news conference via telephone from his hospital room.

Let's listen in now to what Dr. Coffey is explaining.


DR. JAMES COFFEY, VASCULAR SURGEON: ... preserve the artery in the back of the foot, coursing behind his ankle. This artery is crucial because of the extensive nature of the soft-tissue injuries, that there is an area about the size of your palm where the bone is exposed. That will subsequently need to be covered in future surgeries. This artery will serve as a donor vessel to the flap that will be placed over that tissue.

There was one artery in the back of the calf. That course is behind the bone. That artery was severed in the injury. Because of the fact the other two arteries are intact, no further treatment is required, from that standpoint. I would like to turn things over to Dr. Longnecker (ph) to...

DR. LONGNECKER (ph): Kevin came to us with good spirits and support of family and friends. And Dr. Coffey found out early that his vessels were intact, but he had -- he was splinted after his initial two treatments. I think I was that one of the debridements, there were bone fragments that were removed.

When he came to us, he was in a splint, but the bones were not well aligned. Because of the contamination, he was placed on heavy antibiotics. But definitive treatment of the fracture couldn't be done. And so he was placed in an external fixation device, which will give the plastic surgeons access to the wound while it's healing. Now he's in this fixation device. And the main wayfaring bone is aligned. But he still has a long way to go. There's a high chance of infection or delayed union. And we need a lot of work and a lot of prayers for his recovery.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are there any questions for Doctors Coffey or Longnecker?

QUESTION: Did I hear you say that you are not sure how the reconstruction of his shattered leg is going to go until you consult with plastic surgeons? Is that it?

LONGNECKER: No, his...

QUESTION: His right leg -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

LONGNECKER: The first stage of reconstruction has been initiated where his bones are realigned. And he's not in a big bulky splint that he came to us. He's in an external fixation device. And he has a good chance of healing. But there is more debridements planned and plastic surgery to cover the exposed bone left from the injury.

QUESTION: So are there pins in there now holding things together?

LONGNECKER: Yes, just like this picture.

COFFEY: Because of the length of time between the injury and his treatment, and the fact that this is open wound, and the contamination present because of the projectiles traveling through the fuselage, through his clothing, and contamination in the river, you cannot put metal back in and just heal this. So the purpose of this device is, it stabilizes the fracture, allows us to clean the wound. Periodically, he will require several additional operations to clean the wound, and then, at a later date, to go back for more definitive stabilization of his fracture.

There still is a large soft-tissue defect that needs to be covered, And that is where we will ask our colleagues from plastic surgery to become involved to help cover that.

QUESTION: Doctor, with the extent of his injuries, at what point in time do you think he might be able to be up and about?

COFFEY: I would think within in the next day or so, he will be up and about. But he will not be able to bear weight for several months, I would imagine.

QUESTION: And as far as just walking normally again without a pain?

LONGNECKER: Look to a year for that to happen.

QUESTION: In terms of his -- in the the physical aspect of all this, how surprised are you that he's in a condition that he is in after being involved in a plane being shot down over Peru?

COFFEY: I think he's very, very lucky. QUESTION: Talk about anything that may be in his own inner self that allows his physical nature to endure because of this. This was a traumatic incident he's been through.

COFFEY: Well, I think -- if I understand your question, he's very lucky in that the extent of his injuries were not greater. Given the potential force of the impact from the plane crash, the potential for other organs to be damaged, just from the crash itself, it's -- in essence, he walked away from the plane crash. Then you have the gunshot wounds.

I prefer not to go into that, but we can all guess the potential of other outcomes that there were not more injuries or more serious injuries.

QUESTION: We're talking about a very strong human being.

COFFEY: Absolutely. We're also talking about a very lucky individual.

QUESTION: How about the infection? Are you concerned about infection? You were talking about the river water and all that from the plane.

COFFEY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Is he going to treated with antibiotics (OFF-MIKE) point in time?

COFFEY: Yes, he is.

QUESTION: And what type of a danger does that pose in terms of exposure (OFF-MIKE) that infection? Are there unknown type of things out there?

COFFEY: It's not so much of the unknown. We have cultures that are pending. He's on very broad-spectrum coverage in antibiotics. But the concern is that, if the bone becomes infected, then that significantly delays his healing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any other questions for the physicians?

QUESTION: How difficult do you think it was to land the plane -- or operate a plane with an injury like this?

COFFEY: I think there's a man doing God's work and God landed that plane, because I don't think he had the ability. He had no -- I'm not a pilot. I have no idea of how it is to land a plane, but I know: Try to drive your car without your right foot.

LONGNECKER: His foot was -- his leg was grossly unstable in the operating room once his splint was off right. So right after the injury, it was...

COFFEY: Basically, the only thing that's holding his foot on is his skin and some muscles. Both of the bones, as you can see, are disconnected. So he's unable to bear any pressure. So any of the controls of the plane that required the use of his right leg, he was unable to do.

QUESTION: The word "miracle" comes up, Doctor. In your profession, do you look above for a helping in some cases?

COFFEY: Personally, I do.

LONGNECKER: Every day.


QUESTION: How many gunshots are there -- any idea?

COFFEY: I would suspect that -- you can't reconstruct the event. I would suspect that there was one to each side. Again, not knowing how he was positioned at the time, I don't know. But that's really a moot point. They are there. We need to take care of them as best we can.

QUESTION: Are there any other injuries he's being treated for?


QUESTION: Any idea what the caliber of the gun was? (OFF-MIKE)

COFFEY: No. All we have are metal fragments and other projectiles.

QUESTION: Were you able to get all those fragments out?


LONGNECKER: That's not a normal required part of the procedure. We want to get the bone cleaned and get the debris out. But the metal itself doesn't pose any long-term problem.

COFFEY: There is a very low risk of infection from the other pieces of metal. And, as you can see on the picture on the left, in order to get all those little pieces out, we create a much larger injury than he has.

QUESTION: You mentioned that it's going to be at least a year probably before he's able to walk around pain free. Will he be able to walk around like he did before this happened?

COFFEY: It is certainly our hopes and our expectations.

QUESTION: Will he be going through everything here: the surgery, the subsequent surgeries? I would think there would be a lot of rehab involved...


QUESTION: ... for something like this.

COFFEY: Everything will be done here.

QUESTION: Mrs. Donaldson, you will be not be going to back to Peru in (OFF-MIKE) future.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I mean, is that something -- I mean, when the surgeons are finished, are there facilities in Iquitos where he could go to with his rehab -- the same...


QUESTION: Can you tell me a little bit about the splint when he arrived, how that may have helped you guys as far as (OFF-MIKE) When did he get the splint when he was down there? What was the time frame?

COFFEY: I am going to defer that to Mrs. Donaldson. When did he have his splint put on?

DONALDSON: He had the first splint put on on Friday afternoon. The accident happened about 11:00 in the morning. And he kept that one on until Saturday afternoon, where he was treated by a surgeon, and the wound cleaned, and a new, stronger splint put on, because the first one was pretty flimsy. And that one was rewrapped in Lima. And then it was rewrapped in Houston. So it was like one of those presents you have to get all the way into.


DONALDSON: But the splint was put on Saturday afternoon in Iquitos.

QUESTION: And how did that help with (OFF-MIKE)

LONGNECKER: It was -- the splint was just to make him comfortable until he got here. That was just a temporizing measure. It didn't help or hurt us. But the wound looked relatively clean, much better than we thought when we got here, because Kevin endured. And I think we brought into the hospital and right to the operating room. But he told us the two other surgeries and debridements that he had done were not with anesthetics.

FRAZIER: We have been listening here to a medical briefing from the surgeons who have operated on Kevin Donaldson at West Reading Hospital in Pennsylvania -- Donaldson the pilot of that plane that was shot down by Peruvian authorities over the Amazon River before the weekend began.

Let's just recap and explain what happened to him and why he needed all this surgery. Mr. Donaldson was a pilot. And he was carrying four other people in addition to himself on board a plane like this one into the Amazon River Basin. They were all Baptist missionaries engaged in work in that part of the world. Their plane, their flight was tracked by an American surveillance plane, which is on station there to help Peruvian authorities attempt to interdict drug flights.

And they notified authorities that the plane was in the air. The Peruvians scrambled an interception -- interceptor flight. The Peruvian plane asked Donaldson to identify himself. And the Peruvians say he did not, and so they began to shoot at the plane. wounding Donaldson in the leg -- as you saw there, some details of the physical injuries he suffered -- and forcing him to land the plane -- crash- land it, actually, in the Amazon River.

It caught fire once it was down. The most tragic part of the story is that the initial firing by the Peruvian plane killed two of the people on board, an American, Veronica Bowers -- pictured here -- and her young daughter, who was, at the time of the flight, seated on her lap, much as she was in that first photograph we saw. And they were both killed, apparently, while the plane was still in the air. The plane went down. Then it tipped over in the water. And Donaldson, despite his injuries, was able to help extricate all of the people on board from the plane upside down underwater.

And so he was key to keeping alive Ms. Bowers' husband, Jim, and her first child -- her oldest child, Cory, who is about 7 or 8 years old -- so three survivors in that flight, including the pilot. All of the survivors have been returned to the United States for medical care. As we heard there, Mr. Donaldson's care is going to take about a year moving forward. And all this happens against the backdrop now of both White House investigations and State Department investigations into the role of that CIA-chartered surveillance plane and the interchange between that plane and the Peruvian pilots, which are moving forward as we speak.

We will continue to monitor those events at that briefing at Reading Hospital and Medical Center. We will bring them to you if there's any other significance development.



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