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Man's death sentence reversed at Tampa General Hospital

With all the quirks of our nation's health care system, we need look only to the sterilized halls of Tampa General Hospital for an interesting tale.

Thomas Benton has been there nearly three months now. He's a New Yorker, from Long Island, a retired insurance man who volunteered with elementary and junior high kids, deeming himself the "dean of discipline."

He turned 67 on Tuesday and celebrated with his wife, Donna, and family at the hospital. His son Troy lives here, working for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, and another, Erik, is an anesthesiologist and lives in South Tampa. (Another son lives in Tallahassee; a daughter in Delaware.)

Benton came down, he says, because had he stayed in New York, "I'd have been in the ground right now."

The journey to Tampa began July 18 when Benton was admitted to a New York hospital. He'd had health issues in the past, including a mild case of lung cancer in 2000. He also had heart problems, causing doctors to implant a defibrillator some years ago. Ultimately, he would need a heart transplant.

By July, his heart condition had worsened, but doctors didn't want to give him a transplant because of his history with cancer, the family says.

Though each case is different, doctors are generally concerned about performing heart transplants on patients who had cancer in recent years. Transplants require drugs that weaken

patients' immune systems so that their bodies will accept foreign organs. But a weakened system has less power to fight cancer, said Dr. Joren C. Madsen, a physician in Massachusetts who is also president-elect of the American Society of Transplantation.

"We would like to see a patient cancer-free five years after his treatment" before doing a transplant, said Madsen, who had no knowledge of Benton's specific case.

Not long after he arrived at the hospital, Benton said, "The doctor told my wife there was nothing they could do except make me comfortable."

When Benton's son Erik heard about all this, he became "infuriated."

Many families would have accepted the doctors' prognosis, Erik said, but he started asking questions and talked with a local surgeon. Since his father's lung cancer had been in remission for eight years, there was a chance he would do fine with a transplant, said Erik, 31.

Benton was certainly willing. "What would you rather do? I'd rather get another five or 10 years of life."

Benton was flown from New York to TGH where doctors determined he had a staph infection, possibly related to his internal defibrillator. They removed it, and his cardiologist recommended a less commonly used external defibrillator that looks similar to a life jacket.

The day after he got the vest, Benton says, his heart gave out and the vest shocked him back to life. He woke up to find a gang of nurses surrounding his bed.

His life had been spared, again.

After the infection cleared up, doctors performed the heart transplant Sept. 19.

He has responded well, a hospital spokeswoman said. When we talked a few days ago, Benton was planning to stay at TGH for another week or two. Then, he and Donna would move to apartments nearby so he can be monitored.

"I've got to be a very lucky fellow," he said. "Tampa General Hospital is one of the finest hospitals I've ever been in."

When he gets better, he'll move back to New York where the couple has a home. Because of the economy, Benton said, "We can't sell it right now."

He wants to volunteer again, perhaps helping people who've had transplants.

If he does, he'll have an encouraging story to tell them. The opening line might be that sometimes in America, the difference between life and death is only about 1,300 miles.

Man's death sentence reversed at Tampa General Hospital 10/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 9:58am]
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