Friday, April 20, 2018
Public safety

Miami man who had much of his face chewed off is 'awake and alert'

MIAMI

Ronald Edward Poppo — possibly blind, horrendously disfigured — is a happy man.

So say the doctors treating him, who are amazed at his good nature.

"He has not said one thing that's negative,'' said Dr. Nicholas Namias, a surgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center. "He's really just sort of living in the moment.''

Doctors talked about their famous patient's condition on Tuesday for the first time since paramedics brought him to Ryder, on May 26 from the MacArthur Causeway, where a crazed, naked man, Rudy Eugene, chewed off at least half of his face.

In a new development in the sensational case, the doctors described two puncture wounds on the left side of Poppo's chest, where he sustained a broken rib, raising the possibility that the Miami police officer who killed Eugene might also have injured Poppo.

"It could have been an object. It could have been a bullet, but it's not an issue anymore,'' Namias said. "It's nowhere near the worst of his problems.''

The holes, which have healed over, "seemed to connect,'' he said. "There was no foreign body left behind.''

"It could have happened," said Armando Aguilar, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police.

Officer Jose Ramirez fired five shots at Eugene.

Ramirez "had to take swift action, and bullets have a mind of their own,'' Aguilar said. "Just by seeing this horrific act, he had to take immediate action and there was no room for anything else.''

Poppo, an alcoholic street person, also suffered a short-term brain injury much like a car-crash victim would have sustained. The injury required several CAT scans and likely contributed to Poppo's initial confusion, Namias said.

He's being treated for an infection unrelated to the facial wounds, Namias added, and is generally in good health.

Officially, Poppo's condition is stable, and doctors said he gave them permission to discuss his case with the media.

"He's doing well,'' said Namias, who answered questions alongside Dr. Wrood M. Kassira, the plastic surgeon rebuilding Poppo's face, and Dr. Jorge Delgado.

They displayed the first officially released photos of Poppo since the incident, and confirmed that unofficial photos taken immediately after the assault are genuine.

In those original photos, Poppo's face is a bloody pulp, unrecognizable as human. It's still not known who took them or posted them on the Internet.

"We couldn't make out what his features were,'' Kassira said. "Our main objective is to provide (wound) coverage to allow him to recover from the trauma and cope with what's happened to him.''

In the new photos, Poppo's face looks intact from the mustache down. A gauze bandage covers his now-empty left eye socket, and a flap of his own skin protects what's left of a damaged right eyeball.

Bloody scabs, raw wounds and skin grafts cover the rest of his face. He lost his eyebrows, part of his forehead and right cheek, and his nose.

Where the nose once was, Kassira said, "you're seeing what we call exudate,'' defined as "a fluid with a high content of protein and cellular debris which has escaped from blood vessels and has been deposited in tissues or on tissue surfaces.''

Eventually, "that area will slough off and you'll have healed new tissue underneath,'' she said. "The cartilage is technically not exposed."

She said she and Poppo have talked about reconstructive surgery, and that Poppo said: " 'We'll take it one day at a time.' He's very logical. … This is a long process.''

To a great extent, she said, how much reconstructive surgery he undergoes will be up to him. Medicare and Medicaid are paying for much of his care.

"If he doesn't get his vision back, is he more concerned about how he looks or about how the world treats him?'' Kassira asked.

The doctors said that Poppo, who has been homeless for more than half of his 65 years, knows he might be blind. Surgeons removed his left eyeball, and no one knows if he has sight in his damaged right eye.

They said Poppo knows what happened to him, knows it's a huge news story, and that he has been portrayed as a victim of violence.

He has talked some about the past — including his days at New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School — but not at all about the future.

"He's had quite a bit of surgery and has quite a bit more to go,'' said Namias, who noted that "he's getting a host of benefits now that he wasn't getting before. Of course I don't think he'd have traded this awful event for the benefits. … He's just happy with where he's at and what's going on for him is okay.''

"I've never used this word to describe someone before,'' Namias said, "but he's charming. He really is.''

Social workers and psychotherapists visit and chat. Poppo goes to physical therapy, and takes all medications by mouth. He asks for orange juice and Italian food, and sports on television.

Namias said that Poppo asked if the doctor planned to watch the NBA Finals Tuesday night between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, and sent him off to the news conference with a hearty: "Go Heat!"

Poppo also knows that a long-estranged brother in California has spoken to his doctors and is helping manage his care, Namias said.

Poppo has two brothers and a sister who lost contact with him 30 years ago. He also has a daughter in New Jersey who was 2 when she last saw him, and has said she thought he was dead.

Poppo often slept in a parking garage of Jungle Island, the Watson Island tourist attraction, where homeless outreach workers and police offered help as recently as April. He refused.

The doctors wouldn't speculate about how long Poppo might remain in the hospital or where he'll go when he leaves.

"The guy has got to be a survivor, living on Watson Island all these years,'' Namias said. "I think he's become pragmatic about life. … Right now there's nice people around him and meals and there's hope.''

Miami Herald staff writers Luisa Yanez and David Ovalle contributed to this report.

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