It was the best possible Father’s Day. John Donovan woke up to see his kids.
A month earlier, John, 49, had been looking forward to the summer. Coaching his three kids’ sports teams. A big family trip to Ireland. The peace of running outside.
The fever came on suddenly. At dinner with his wife, Sharon, John didn’t feel well and he was beginning to feel worse. That night his heart was racing, pounding like a drumline. He was having trouble breathing. Something was very wrong.
Sharon took him to the ER at Abington-Jefferson Health. “I’ve run the Broad Street Run every year for a decade and have always been in pretty good shape,” says John. “I hadn’t been to the ER in 20 years.”
He was diagnosed with Group A streptococcus. Rare and deadly, it’s the same condition that took the life of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, at the age of 53.
Things were becoming critical, fast. John’s lungs were failing. “The doctors told Sharon and me that I would need to be intubated, so we knew things were bad,” says John. “It all happened so suddenly.”
The ER physicians called their colleagues at Jefferson’s Jane and Leonard Korman Lung Center. John was already too sick to move, so the Jefferson team had to rush to Abington.
In X-rays, John’s lungs looked like they were covered by a shroud; the bacteria had spread everywhere. He would need a procedure called ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) that uses a machine to take over the work of the lungs.
“It was such a scary situation, especially for Sharon,” says John. “But the Jefferson doctors told her that ECMO was the best chance to save my life.”
Jefferson’s ECMO team is one of the best in the country, boasting survival rates far exceeding national averages. “Our approach combines the best ECMO technology with a team of cardiac and pulmonary physicians, nurses and mid-level providers all trained in complex critical care,” says Dr. Nicholas Cavarocchi, who was on the scene along with Dr. Harrison Pitcher to care for John. Stabilized by the machine, they flew him by helicopter to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Center City.
“The support from everyone at Jefferson—the doctors, the nurses, the staff — was incredible,” says John. “They were all pulling for me like they’d known me my whole life.”
Slowly, John began to recover. The darkness in his lungs cleared. The fog of medication evaporated. A month after that harrowing night, John woke up for Father’s Day to see his kids in person.
Soon, he was on a treadmill at Jefferson’s partner Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
“I wanted to get home to my family,” says John. “I wanted to get back to work, back to coaching.”
Now, he’s back on the soccer field, coaching. He’s building his strength back for 5Ks and, hopefully, the Broad Street Run next year.
“When you go through something like I did, you have to lean on friends, lean on family,” says John. “After what they did for me, Jefferson is family.”