By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Having survived diabetes, a lower leg amputation, a hernia, kidney transplant and eight years in the National Football League, this is merely a trifle on Ron Springs' medical odyssey.
Simple surgery to remove a quarter-sized, sebaceous, benign cyst from his left forearm? Just another mundane errand on life's to-do list.
"Don't worry," Springs tells his wife, Adriane, on the afternoon of October 12, 2007, "we'll be home in time for dinner."
And with that, at approximately 4 p.m., Springs is wheeled into Medical City of Dallas' Building A, third-floor operating suite. Springs waits patiently in room No. 14 until he is greeted around 4:15 by plastic surgeon Dr. David Godat.
"How 'bout Stanford beating USC?" the doctor offers on last weekend's major college football upset. "Crazy."
As Godat leaves for a short break in his office before the scheduled 5 p.m. procedure, Springs contemplates his situation. He's not exactly nervous, but pensive. Anxious even.
The problem area is more of a chronic, necrotic wound—a by-product of diabetes—that's been bugging him for months. About an inch deep, it resides near Springs' elbow, constantly irritating and itching and sometimes secreting a thick, yellow, fungal discharge. It's as pesky as it is gross, but it's about to be scraped to smithereens.
Springs, whose hands and arms have suffered muscle contractures and curled into almost useless claws as a result of diabetes, sought relief from contractures specialist Dr. Bo Frederick. But he refused to perform the surgery until the potentially infectious spot was permanently removed. Eight days ago, Springs consulted Medical City wound care specialist Dr. Laurie Aten, who then referred him to Godat.
The cyst was almost removed twice in the last week (once in Aten's office and once in Godat's), but on both occasions Springs was unable to tolerate the pain despite Godat administering a local anesthestic to the arm. Surgery is the last resort.
At 4:20 Dr. Joyce Abraham of the Texas Anesthesia Group arrives. She called Springs' Plano home last night, but the couple was out to dinner at Luby's, and she merely left a message about today's procedure. She elects general anesthesia and prepares to intubate Springs via LMA (Laryngeal Mask Anesthesia).
Easing Springs' mind is the fact that Abraham and Godat have worked in concert approximately 25 times over the last three-plus weeks. Springs' transplant and amputation surgeries were performed without hiccup at Medical City. And besides, he is one of the hospital's poster boys—a former Dallas Cowboys hero and a nationally lauded recipient of the first kidney to change bodies between professional teammates, donated by former Cowboy and close friend Everson Walls.
What could possibly go wrong?
The cruel irony to this all-time feel-good-to-fucked-up story:
Springs' left kidney works just fine.
But instead of trumpeting the courage and generosity of Walls, watching his son, Shawn, play in the NFL, touring the country spreading the miracles of organ donation or possibly being recruited to perform the coin toss at next year's Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, he lies in a persistent vegetative state in a private room of Medical City's intensive care unit.
Since the pre-surgery that cheated him out of precious oxygen to his brain and left him in a coma, Springs' life—or lack thereof—has been a perpetual Groundhog Day. For the last 900 or so nights he sleeps peacefully, but in the mornings he doesn't wake up.
"It just breaks my heart," says Walls, who made national headlines when he gave his kidney to Springs three years ago. "This was supposed to be an inspirational story. It was supposed to be a landmark victory for organ donors. And it still should be...the surgery was a success. The kidney is doing great. But when I bring up Ron's name these days, some people are like 'Oh, I thought he was dead.'"
Springs isn't dead, but he certainly isn't living.
While attorneys representing Ron and Adriane prepare to take their medical malpractice case against Abraham, Godat and Medical City of Dallas to trial this August in the 14th Judicial District Court of Dallas County, Ron's movements tease friends and family with hints of improvement but offer no tangible evidence that he'll ever wake up.
Kept alive via intravenous feeding tubes, Springs, now 53, remains essentially non-responsive, unable to react, recognize or communicate. He flirts with recovery: Breathing on his own (an unobstructed airway via tracheotomy is in place, just in case). Sitting up in a chair for as much as five hours a day. His blood work is clean, normal. His skin exhibits a deep, healthy glow. Coughing. Yawning. Flinching. Opening his eyes. And recently he did something he hadn't since the dawn of the coma—he sneezed.
"He's been in there for so long you expect him to be on his death bed, but you'd be amazed at how good he looks," Walls says. "Except for being in a coma, he's a healthy dude. He opens his eyes and looks at you. He hears you. He feels you. You look for the small things. Small celebrations you hope turn into bigger things down the road. It keeps you from being disheartened, being bleak without hope."