Ed Bettinelli has been living a charmed life.
“I always say if my bank account was as rich as my soul, I’d be very wealthy,” said the 63-year-old, with a chuckle.
A professional drummer since age 15, Bettinelli has opened for such music greats as Bon Jovi and Pat Benatar, as well as Asia, the Average White Band, The Tubes and the Split Enz, among others.
He and his band Preview landed a major record deal with Geffen in the ’80s and with RCA in the ‘90s. During his career, he worked with legendary rock ‘n’ roll producer Keith Olsen, who produced hits for top artists like Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy Osbourne, the Grateful Dead and Santana.
His step-daughter, actress Holly Marie Combs, even played Piper in the hit TV series “Charmed.”
“I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences and achieved a lot of things that I dreamed about doing,” said Bettinelli, who now teaches drumming from his home office overlooking the Hudson in Dobbs Ferry, New York. “I’ve had a pretty fulfilling life.”
Despite his accomplishments, Bettinelli was totally unprepared for his latest triumph: He battled an imminent heart attack and Covid-19 simultaneously – and won.
“After Covid-19 he had robotic, minimally invasive coronary bypass surgery, which comprises less than 1% of all cardiac surgery,” said Dr. John Puskas, chair of cardiovasular surgery at Mount Sinai Morningside in New York City, who operated on Bettinelli.
“So I will be willing to bet he’s the first person on the planet to have recovered from Covid-19 and then had invasive, robotic bypass surgery.”
‘I had no idea’
It was early February – Covid-19 was still a distant threat in China – when Bettinelli learned that he was in danger of having a “widow maker” heart attack. It meant he had a 100% blockage in a critical artery on the left of the heart – most don’t survive, hence the name. To make matters worse, he also had major blockage in several other blood vessels.
Again, Bettinelli was lucky. Unlike many with the condition, he had an attack of painful angina – collapsing to the floor in his home – as a warning. Still, learning he had a genetic condition that could kill him at any second was a shock. He’d aced his last few physicals.
“I’ve always kept myself in shape,” Bettinelli said. “I am the last person on the basketball court to tire. I’ve run 10 marathons. I had no idea I had a heart problem.”
Doctors at Mount Sinai quickly put in a stent, but what Bettinelli really needed was bypass surgery. Yet the day before his procedure was scheduled in mid-March, the hospital shut down elective surgeries due to the pandemic.
By that time the virus was decimating New York City – with hundreds of cases and dozens of deaths each day.
Bettinelli’s surgery was elective because he had an unusual advantage: His heart had grown a new artery to compensate for reduced blood flow – yet another example of his charmed life.
“It’s the heart’s way of basically doing a bypass,” Bettinelli said. “I have an extra artery that apparently fewer than 20% of people have.”
Two weeks later Bettinelli’s luck ran out. He began to run a fever and show other signs of Covid-19.
Despite being a high-risk priority due to his heart disease – one of the conditions that often makes Covid-19 turn deadly – Bettinelli couldn’t get through the lines at the hospital to be seen.
“This was the thick of it, when New Yorkers were getting their ass kicked by Covid,” he said. “They were setting up beds in Central Park and Mount Sinai had completely enclosed the atrium and subdivided it for beds.”
A drive-through test confirmed Bettinelli had the virus. Quarantined in a separate part of his home, far away from his family, he battled recurring fevers and overwhelming fatigue. He fretted, often not knowing if his symptoms were due to the virus or his failing heart.
Then, another blow. His elderly parents on Long Island were also diagnosed with Covid-19. But they would not take the disease seriously, Bettinelli said.
“They thought the virus was a conspiracy. I was losing my mind about it,” he said. “I was on the phone with my mother the day before my 89-year-old father went into the hospital and she was downplaying the virus.”
His mother recovered at home. His father looked like he too would beat the virus.
“For the first 11 days he was in the hospital, Dad looked like he was coming home. And then all of a sudden he crashed. By the grace of God, he lived long enough for me to tell him how much I loved him.”
‘The sickest of the sick’
At Mount Sinai, Puskas too was facing a devastating reality. As chair of the cardiovascular surgery department, he was leading the retooling of the hospital’s large cardiovascular intensive care unit to care for the masses of patients with Covid-19.
“All the cardiac surgeons became intensive care doctors in the ICU,” he said. “And because we were the highest tech ICU, we got the sickest of the sick.”
As members of a cardiac ICU, the doctors were used to a mortality rate of less than 1%, Puskas said. Now, despite their best efforts, people were dying daily in front of their eyes.
“The mortality rate was almost a hundred fold greater, at 70% or 80%,” he said. “It was shocking to see … to have a mortality rate so atrociously high in patients whose loved ones are not able to be with them.
“And it’s in an environment where all of our teammates are wondering, ‘Are we soon going to be taking care of each other here on the ventilator?’”
Despite the constant stress, Puskas worried about his patient, hoping Bettinelli would not join the masses in the hospital’s ICUs.
“I was terrified. I thought he might well die,” Puskas said. “He’s a 63-year-old man with coronary artery disease requiring an operation that’s been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. And then he gets Covid.
“He falls pretty squarely in a category of patients who tend to do very poorly with Covid-19,” Puskas added. “We carefully monitored him, checking in very week.”
Slowly, painfully, the crisis in New York City peaked and passed. By June, Puskas and his team were ready to begin elective heart surgeries again. One of the first: Ed Bettinelli.
“He was the very first patient who had Covid-19 that we operated on and he was one of the first patients for whom we did any cardiac surgery after the peak passed here in New York,” Puskas said.
Charmed recovery, but with a message
In spite of the delays and the complexity of the operation, Bettinelli recovered remarkably well.
“The next day I was up on my feet walking, and they couldn’t believe it,” Bettinelli said. “Everything I was doing, they were like telling me, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’ “
The hospital staff also couldn’t believe that a patient facing critical surgery would bring his drumsticks to the hospital, Puskas said.
“So he’s drumming on his meal tray, on his metal bed,” Puskas said with a laugh, “which was pretty entertaining for everybody involved.”
Bettinelli explained himself to Puskas just after the surgery, using the sticks as he spoke.
“I bring my sticks any time I’m going to be away from my drums for more than 24 hours,” then added that “after the bypass, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to move them.”
“How are they working?” Puskas asked. “Slow, but they’ll be fine in a couple days,” Bettinelli answered, as he continued to practice.
Despite the good news, the experience left both men with a resolve to recount the story, hoping that the telling might impact those who are not taking the dangers of the novel coronavirus seriously.
“I hate to say it, but it’s ignorance,” Bettinelli said. “Because there’s no way you live through what I lived through and then say, ‘Oh, I don’t need to wear a mask. This virus is fake. This isn’t happening.’ That’s a dangerous situation.”
For Mount Sinai’s Puskas, it’s the sacrifice of the frontline workers that needs to be honored.
“One of the things that startled me is the burden our nursing teams have borne in this crisis,” Puskas said.
“Countless times I’ve seen nurses with a little iPad or their own personal cell phones wrapped up in PPE doing Facetime with a family member, showing their cell phone image of the dying loved one on a ventilator.
“Let that image stick in the mind of a healthy young kid who willy-nilly, may be passing around the virus,” Puskas said. “Let them stop and think of the burden that puts on that patient, on that family, on that nurse.”