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LIJ doctor, patient recount lung surgery

The day after Eric Zapata went to Splish Splash water park in Suffolk County in August, he developed a pain in his back and had trouble breathing.

The pain got worse and he had to be admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, L.I., where he was put on a respirator and it was discovered a bacteria known to be the most common cause of staph infection was in his bloodstream.

In September, Eric, 15, contracted sepsis, a systemic blood infection that can become fatal, and his vital organs began to shut down, causing doctors to place him in a medically induced coma for 28 days.

While in the coma, Eric developed infections in his left lung and necrotizing pneumonia, which causes tissue to die, in both lungs. He needed 17 tubes to help remove fluid buildup and inflate his lungs as well as a tracheotomy to help him breathe and tubes for feeding.

Despite the treatment Eric was receiving, he was beset by a high fever and needed a ventilator to help him breathe. His weight dropped from 150 pounds to 106 pounds.

Later that month, the Bay Shore, L.I., teen was transferred to Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park.

On Sept. 27, Eric’s heart stopped and had to be brought back to life through cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

At a news conference last Thursday, Eric, his family and his surgeon recounted the risky operation that was performed that saved his life.

“Eric had a very difficult time fighting his infection,” said Dr. David Zeltsman, chief of thoracic surgery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and Eric’s surgeon.

Zeltsman said Eric had to be put on a special ventilator and a CAT scan showed air outside his lungs, which was making his lungs convert into dead tissue.

The doctor said there was a 50-50 possibility that Eric would not survive the operation, but it was his only chance of staying alive.

“There was no other choice,” he said. “There was nothing else to do in Eric’s fight to save his life.”

The surgeon said the operation to remove dead tissue and preserve Eric’s lungs was difficult because he could not identify major blood vessels in the area amid so much infection.

Surgery was first done on Eric’s left lung, where black tissue was either scarred or dead and the same was then performed on his right lung.

Zeltsman removed the bottom third of both of Eric’s lungs and the teen is expected to reach maximum breathing capacity.

Eric left Schneider in December and was sent to another hospital for inpatient rehabilitation. He returned to Schneider Jan. 15 to have his breathing tube removed and is continuing his rehab.

“It truly is a miracle which took place because of such a dedication of medical staff and, most importantly, because of his family,” Zeltsman said.

Iris Rivera, Eric’s mother, used the same terms to describe her son’s recovery.

“Eric is a miracle and I want to thank everyone,” she said. “We prayed and we prayed and we prayed for a miracle.”

“I believe in miracles, but not like this,” Eric said during the news conference last Thursday, where he thanked Zeltsman.

“He’s the man and he saved my life,” Eric said. “He gave me a second chance to be in this world.”

Eric said he was looking forward to “just living life and living it up.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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