Perhaps Bill's favorite chapter -- 14 -- details his heart surgery in June 1992, less than a year after he had abruptly quit the Super Bowl champion Giants. Below is an excerpt from the chapter. And in our video gallery, you can watch Bill discuss the 1992 bypass, and his relationship with his world-class surgeon.
As a boy, Parcells scaled the spire of a local church for kicks. In high school, he was the quintessential jock, using his body with abandon. During college he entered a contest to wrestle a bear. And in the NFL, Parcells instilled fear in some of the biggest, baddest athletes on the planet. Now, for the first time, Parcells was directly confronted by his mortality. The possibility of imminent death jarred him, as Parcells considered the silver lining of succumbing during surgery. “Fortunately,” he says dryly, “I would never know it.” Preparing for the worst, he went over the family’s finances with Judy at their living-room table. He provided detailed, written instructions that included wishes beyond his will. “In that situation,” he explains, “you don’t know if you’re coming back, so it was time to set my affairs in order with my wife.”
Parcells tried to mask his disquietude from his family, assuring everyone that things would turn out fine, but he was determined to keep his daughters from seeing him immediately after the bypass, when he would be weak and connected to a ventilator. “I don’t want the girls down there,” Parcells told Judy. “Don’t bring them in until I’m sitting up.”
Late Monday morning, June 1, 1992, the couple drove to Philadelphia. The surgery was scheduled for 7 a.m. the next day. For most of the two-hour ride to Temple University Hospital, Parcells remained mute as his emotions roiled. Unhappy about the need for surgery, he had resigned himself to its inevitability. After silence in the car for several minutes, Parcells reiterated his instructions to Judy for the worst-case scenario, reminding her who to contact about the family’s finances. Despite her husband’s tough-guy exterior, she detected his angst, especially as Philadelphia neared.
Once Parcells was settled in his hospital room, the only concern he expressed to Judy involved memory loss, a risk of heart surgery. For Parcells, whose memory was preternatural, the only thing worse would be death. During a single-bypass operation, the heart is stopped to allow the creation of a new conduit for blood. In Parcells’s case, an artery under his breastbone needed to be grafted to his problematic artery to circumvent, or bypass, the blockage, and maintain proper blood supply to the heart. The blood flow would be rerouted by having one end of the clear artery grafted below the clogged section of the vessel known as the widow maker. “Someday people will probably laugh at us for doing this,” says V. Paul Addonizio, Parcells's heart surgeon. “But we literally stitch the new artery to the old one.”
To halt the heart without causing death, all the blood needed to be drained from it and funneled through a tube into the heart-lung machine, which temporarily takes over the functions of those organs. Dubbed “the pump,” the machine provides respiration while pumping blood throughout the body to maintain circulation and body temperature. After surgery, the heart and lung resume their normal functions. The downside of the pump is that the longer a patient is on it, the more likely it is that complications will occur. Microscopic particles inevitably reach blood vessels in the brain. And the patient may awaken from surgery having forgotten such basic facts as the name of the current president, or the most recent Super Bowl–winning coach. In the worst cases, this particulate matter could cause brain damage.
“I always say, ‘There’s only three kinds of heart surgeons: fast-good, fast-bad and slow-bad,” Addonizio says. “There’s no slow-good.”
So Parcells instructed Judy to test his memory after he awoke from anesthesia by asking him his address, his birth date, and the phone number of his youngest brother, Doug.
in the late afternoon, Addonizio came to Parcells’s hospital room for a meeting in advance of surgery. With Judy present, the doctor provided his patient with a breakdown of the surgery, post-surgical treatment, timeline for his stay assuming no setbacks, and likelihood of complications. Addonizio confirmed that surgery was necessary to avoid the likelihood of a fatal heart attack. Although Parcells had considered a single-bypass operation to be less challenging than other heart surgeries, in certain respects his situation was among the most difficult. The new connection between the rejiggered arteries, called anastomosis, had to be nearly flawless. Technically it wasn’t a complex surgery, but the precision required in the linkage made the margin for error almost zero.
Addonizio offers perspective on the low probability of death during surgery. “Keep in mind that for the person who doesn’t make it,” he says, “it’s 100 percent. And 3 percent is pretty high odds compared to, say, the chances of being in a plane crash.”
Brooklyn-born in 1948, Addonizio had attended Xavier High, a private school in Manhattan, then obtained a biology degree from New York University. As a teenager Addonizio relished Big Blue’s dominance from the mid-fifties through the early sixties. His favorite Giant was quarterback Y. A. Tittle, who won the 1963 league MVP but lost the NFL Championship for the third straight year. While Addonizio trained to be a doctor, obtaining a medical degree from Cornell University in 1974, he suffered through some of the franchise’s down decades. So Parcells was larger than life to Giants fans like Addonizio for returning their team to glory.
The early 1990s was an exciting time for the heart-surgery profession, highlighted by the introduction of the artificial heart, a boon for patients awaiting transplants. Addonizio had performed hundreds of surgeries each year, including some on professional athletes. To manage his intensely pressure-filled job, Addonizio maintained some detachment. “I’m not one of these I-feel-your-pain type of people,” says Addonizio, who encourages his staff to lend emotional support. “My job is to do the best I possibly can for the patient.”
Therefore, Addonizio failed to detect Parcells’s apprehension preceding the bypass. Instead, the doctor was struck by his patient’s take-charge mannerism, even in his vulnerable position. With a polite yet booming voice, he asked several incisive questions. Despite the fact that Parcells was talking to the man who would hold his heart in hand, he remained the dominant presence in the room.
“Now, this may seem a bit strange, but the first impression I had was that this was an extraordinarily attractive man,” Addonizio recalls. “This is a real man’s man, like in the style of, say, a John Wayne. The second impression was that this fellow has tremendous leadership ability. It’s not something I can define, but it’s something you sense when you’re in the presence of certain people.
“It’s not as if he was ever mean or demanding. He was a model patient, believe it or not. You would think somebody who’s forceful enough to control L.T. would be difficult.”
Just before his early-morning surgery, Parcells took a shower to minimize the chances of infection, a significant concern for heart-surgery patients. He was assigned a number, a plastic cap, and a loose gown not designed for privacy. Although Parcells had taken a sedative, his anxiety soared as he was placed on a gurney to be transported to the waiting area of the op- erating room. The intern handling the gurney turned out to be a player on Temple’s football team. And Parcells couldn’t resist sizing up his physique, noting the similarities to some of his ex-Giants. Just before strapping Parcells on the gurney, the college student produced a football, a pen, and a sheet of paper.
“Hey Coach, would you mind signing these for my brother?”
Amused by the timing of the request, Parcells, took the pigskin. “Well, if I don’t make it out of here, you’re going to have the last ball I ever signed. You’re going to sell that sonofabitch, aren’t you?”
The intern curled his right hand into a fist and tapped the side of the gurney. “Don’t worry, Coach, I’ll be there when you come out!”
His conviction boosted Parcells’s confidence. The famous patient autographed the football and the paper, signing off with, “Good luck.” As Parcells was wheeled down the hallway, his gaze largely limited to the banks of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, he wondered if this would be among his final sights. Parcells strained his head sideways, hoping to catch a glimpse of a window to the outside world, but all he could see were brick walls going by. “I was in a bit of a mental battle,” he recalls.
Oblivious to his patient’s state of mind, the intern moved Parcells along briskly, but when he noticed Parcells craning his neck, he slowed down. Finally, a few yards from their destination Parcells got lucky, spotting a window through an open door that revealed an oak tree, lush with June foliage.
When he entered the O.R. waiting area, two other patients were waiting on gurneys. One was a policeman from Cinnaminson, New Jersey, an eastern suburb of Philadelphia. Recognizing Parcells, the cop initiated a conversation, revealing that this was his second surgery for a cancerous brain tumor. Ex-coach and cop commiserated for a few minutes until the wall clock registered 7 a.m. Surgery time. The policeman was moved through one door as Parcells was wheeled through another, which opened into a room so vast it looked like a football field, brightly lit for a night game.
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