Willie King first realized something was terribly wrong in the recovery room of University Community Hospital when he was awakened by a surgeon asking how his leg felt.
"That's when I discovered it," King said. "I said,"doctor, that's the wrong leg.' "
The surgeon was speechless.
King talked to the media for the first time Thursday morning about the bungled operation that took the left foot he had hoped would carry him through the rest of his life.
Dressed in a new red sport shirt and looking healthier than photographs taken by his attorney days after surgery, King sat in a wheelchair in Tampa General Hospital's sixth floor visiting area and pondered aloud the last month of his life. Family members sat quietly beside him as he spoke.
"When I came to and realized I lost the good one, it was a shock, a real shock," King said. "I really wanted someone to come to me to say a mistake had been made."
King, 51, who has had diabetes for 20 years, was scheduled to have his disease-ridden right foot amputated in an operation at UCH on Feb. 20. Dr. Rolando Sanchez, the surgeon, cut off King's left foot by mistake.
Two weeks later, King was transferred to Tampa General, where doctors tried to find a way to save his right foot. Rather than endure painful procedures, King had his right foot amputated at the calf on Tuesday.
"I've kind of taken it in stride," King said of his surprisingly calm reaction to such a tragedy. "I still got a long ways to go."
King, who has lived in Tampa for two years, is originally from Cordele, Ga., where he met and married his wife, Pauline, 33 years ago. Though they are separated, the couple remain on good terms. They have three children: Dwaine, 33, Gequitha, 30, and Willie Jr., 25, and eight grandchildren.
King worked as a heavy equipment operator, but quit when he found he had heart problems and diabetes, his family said. He enjoys fishing, reading and traveling to visit family.
"I guess I was always an independent fellow, and I liked to be by myself, keep my own place and I just did the things I wanted to do," King said. "If I wanted to go to the store, I could do that, but now these things have changed."
Once the wrong foot was amputated, King said, Sanchez and someone from UCH's risk management came to his room to try to convince him the surgery was a necessity. He didn't believe it.
"I know we all make mistakes, we are human," King said. "But how could you make a mistake like that?"
King said for two weeks the hospital didn't talk about the surgery, and no one came to look at his right leg or talk about his future, so he transferred to Tampa General.
"I felt kind of like a dirty shirt," he said. "Why wash it if you're not going to wear it anymore, so you toss it to the side."
A week ago, UCH offered to settle all claims against the hospital and Sanchez for $250,000 plus $4,000 a month toward medical needs and free health care at UCH, King's attorney, Peter Brudny said. King rejected the offer.
"I'd certainly like to be in a position to be taken care of," King said, though he wouldn't elaborate on how much money he would need.
Over the last week, UCH officials have refused to discuss King's treatment at the hospital or pending negotiations.
Sanchez maintains his operating privileges at UCH, though the state is investigating the incident, said John Andreas, the hospital's administrative director. The hospital reported the mistake to the state Department of Professional Regulation.
"Our position has been that we are not going to negotiate this in the press," Andreas said Thursday. "That's the way our administrators feel."
Since the news of his operation hit the national media, support has come from people all over the country. King has received cards, letters, books and flowers from as far away as North Dakota, Missouri and Nevada.
"A lot of people I don't know from a lot of different places have given me support," he said. "I wanted to give them a chance to hear what I had to say."
When King's attorney lifted the blanket to reveal his legs, King joked: "I'm old stubby." Then added: "Sometimes if you don't laugh about it, you'll cry."
When he is well enough, King will begin rehabilitation. He said he keeps his faith through family, friends and prayer. He has yet to cry and remains strong about the future.
"I always thought I'd have one leg I could depend on," King said. "Maybe I'll shed a tear when you all are gone. It's something I have to live with."