The publicity has died.
But quietly, meekly, barely—Ron Springs lives.
That is, if you call this living.
Lying in a vegetative state at Medical City Hospital in Dallas since a simple surgery to remove a tiny cyst turned catastrophic last October, the former Dallas Cowboys running back is permanently on pause. Kept alive via intravenous feeding, he remains non-responsive, unable to voluntarily react, recognize or communicate. He offers teases of life: Breathing on his own. Coughing. Yawning. Flinching if you tug his ear.
He even opens his eyes.
"But it just breaks your heart," says longtime friend and former teammate Everson Walls. "He's not looking at you, he's looking for you."
Springs' neurologists term it "highly unlikely" that he'll ever snap out of his persistent incapacitated state caused by severe anoxic brain trauma. The crappy, cruel irony? Springs' left kidney—the one so famously donated to him by Walls—is functioning perfectly.
"Just like it was supposed to," says Walls, forcing a chuckle to choke back the tears.
It's not certain whether Springs lies static in his private hospital room day after day as a body lacking a spirit or vice-versa. But it's undeniable that he has deteriorated from 2007's feel-good story into the epicenter of a bitter malpractice lawsuit pitting his wife, Adriane, against the physicians who had attended to him—anesthesiologist Dr. Joyce Abraham and plastic surgeon David Godat.
Alleging "reckless and heedless disregard," Springs' attorneys filed a petition on January 22 seeking unspecified actual, exemplary and punitive damages for Ron's ruin. Now, they are hurling the most damning of inflammatory charges in the wake of the defendants' delays, objections and motions to dismiss the case.
"They're hoping Ron Springs dies before this case can go to trial," Dallas attorney Les Weisbrod says. "If he dies, it makes things a whole lot cheaper for the defense and their insurance company. It's absolutely horrible. But it's absolutely true."
Retorts lead Dallas defense attorney Bill Chamblee, "To cast aspersions and claim that others don't care about the life and death of a human being is enormously erroneous and overwhelmingly untrue."
It's all a damn shame, because the ghastly ending is spoiling the goose-bumpy start.
Walls and Springs became friends playing for the Cowboys in the early '80s, but the running back's health declined after he retired. In '90 Springs was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a disease that forced the amputation of his lower right leg, curled his hands useless and ransacked his kidneys into dialysis three times a week. Stuck on a national transplant waiting list for almost four years, Walls—who else?— came to the rescue.
Everson Walls: victimized by "The Catch," vindicated by "The Gift."
The two live a mile apart in Plano. Their wives are best friends. They are godfathers to each other's children. Made perfect sense that they were compatible, type O blood brothers.
The successful surgery in February '07 was the first organ transplant between professional teammates, transforming Walls into a hero and Springs into a celebrity with a drastically improved quality of life. He got off dialysis. His ashen skin flushed back normal. He began physical therapy to improve his posture, regain use of his hands and eventually leave his wheelchair with a prosthetic leg.
The two christened their own Gift For Life charitable foundation, began public speaking on the benefits of organ donation and on September 9 were honored as Cowboys' co-captains at the season-opening game against the Giants at Texas Stadium.
"I thank all the people in Dallas and around the country for their prayers," the 50-year-old Springs told the sellout crowd that night. "They don't have to worry about Ron Springs giving up."
A month later, Springs walked—that's right, walked—into Walls' living room.
"He just rang the doorbell and came on in like the old Ron," Walls says. "He was talking trash, eating all my food. You could tell he wasn't just staying alive. He was looking forward to living."
It's the last time Walls would see his buddy, well, alive.
The next afternoon—Friday, October 12—Springs checked into Medical City for a routine procedure to have a benign cyst removed from his left forearm. The thing, about as big as your fingernail, was ugly and bothersome. But no big deal. Surgery was set for around 5 p.m. Ron assured Adriane they'd be home in time for dinner.
"All this for what amounted to an uncomfortable nuisance," Weisbrod says.
What happened next depends on whom you believe in Cause No. 08-00671.
In the lawsuit, being played out in Judge Mary Murphy's state district court, the plaintiffs contend that Dr. Godat "assigned" Dr. Abraham to administer anesthesia to Springs though she was only three months out of her residency and unfamiliar with the high-risk patient's history of having difficulty with breathing tubes. The suit alleges that Dr. Abraham ordered no pre-op lab work and began general anesthesia around 4:28 p.m.
In their answer filed January 31, the defendants claim that Dr. Abraham performed a "thorough pre-operative evaluation on the day of the procedure." The legal response also alleges that earlier in October, Springs halted removal of the cyst under local anesthesia because of intolerable pain, which is what subsequently necessitated the general anesthesia.
Both sides agree that almost immediately Springs had trouble breathing, and that Dr. Abraham had difficulty inserting an intubation tube into his throat. The plaintiffs, however, maintain that Dr. Abraham induced paralysis to relax the patient and, with the help of other staff including Dr. Godat, eventually inserted a tube through Springs' nose after he went almost 30 minutes without oxygen to his brain. The defendant's answer, to the contrary, claims that Springs' airway was maintained throughout the episode.
Says Weisbrod, "Because she screwed up, Ron has permanent brain damage."
Counters Chamblee, "Dr. Abraham acted appropriately, and Mr. Springs' unfortunate and unforeseen complication is not related in any regard to her providing care in a negligent fashion."
Because of numerous procedural speed bumps—including an imminent defense appeal of last week's ruling by Judge Murphy that the opinions of the plaintiffs' experts are admissible—Weisbrod says neither depositions nor discovery have commenced, and the case is unlikely to go to trial until 2009 at the earliest.
Until then, the teams of lawyers will continue playing hot potato with Springs' astronomical, soaring medical bills and haggle over the controversial state law capping non-economic damages (pain and suffering) at $250,000, which Weisbrod is challenging on federal constitutional grounds.
Until then, Walls will continue reminding the public that his friend's dire situation is not associated with the organ transplant.
"Lives have been changed by our story, and we need to keep telling it," Walls says. "My job is to finish what Ron started."
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And until then, Ron Springs will— motionless and emotionless—continue awaiting a Hail Mary.
The two doctors continue to practice at Medical City, where Walls visits once a week, Adriane every day and Springs' daughters, Ayra and Ashley, every chance they get. They talk to him. Pray for him. All the while ignoring the grim reality that his comatose communication is probably as good as it'll ever get.
"He's still there. Still alive," Walls says. "I just keep telling him I can't wait for him to wake up so I can tease him. There's no other option but to keep trying to do everything you can to be part of his life.
"You have to believe. Miracles happen. We're going to keep on praying."