Over the course of John Russo’s harrowing, 86-day stay at Novant Health New Hanover Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina, the staff became family. And his medical team felt the same way about John and his wife, Jo.

After an event last February, the couple came home and went to bed. Jo woke up at 2 a.m. to discover John wasn’t in bed. She found him sitting in the living room, his fingers tingling.

Jo called 911, turned on all the lights so medics could readily find them, unlocked the door and stood in the hallway. John didn’t have chest pain or lose consciousness, so neither thought this was a serious situation.

“EMTs were here within three minutes,” Jo said. “They did an EKG and calmly said to him, ‘Sir, you're having a heart attack. Things are going to go quickly now. We’re going to take care of you and make you comfortable and bring you right to the cath lab.’” (That’s the cardiac catheterization lab, where tests and procedures such as ablations, angiograms, angioplasty and pacemaker implants are done.)

In reality, John, then 71, was having a massive heart attack known as a STEMI or ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction.


Your best life starts with an annual checkup.

Book now

At the hospital, doctors were ready for John. He was taken immediately to the lab. The doctors had inserted a pump in his heart to help him during those first few hours. When the procedure was over, the surgeon told Jo that John had a massive heart attack and the next 24 hours would be crucial. When John made it through that first day, Jo figured the worst was behind them.

But a host of other complications awaited. John stayed in the hospital for the next three months.

The long road begins

He would go on to experience rapid atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat), acute kidney injury, hematuria (blood in his urine), fevers, excessive nose bleeds. He required continuous dialysis and multiple blood transfusions.

“John came to the ER on Feb. 12 and earned himself four stents,” said Joy Zalaiskalns, manager of the CICU (cardiac intensive care unit) that was John’s home for the first third of his stay. He was in CICU for about a month, then a progressive care unit for a month and, finally, inpatient rehab for almost a month. Zalaiskalns became invaluable to his care, both physically and mentally, as did many other talented, committed and caring nurses.

John was doing well enough on the second day to have his heart pump removed. Within a few hours, however, he began having significant issues because his heart had become so weak. John would be intubated for the first time.

Dr. John Rommel is wearing a white lab coat over a purple shirt and pink tie and is smiling at the camera
Dr. John Rommel

That’s when cardiologist Dr. John Rommel came into John’s life. Rommel inserted an Impella device, informally known as the world’s smallest heart pump. Rommel not only took care of John’s medical issues, he was compassionate and understanding of what John and his family were going through, John and Jo said.

John met physicians from many specialties. “So many people were involved in his care – cardiology, pulmonology, GI doctors, palliative care, an infectious disease doctor, speech therapy, physical therapy, nutrition,” Zalaiskalns said. “The cardiology department coordinated his care. Dr. Rommel was a driving force in getting him home. Dr. Rommel always helps us envision a positive outcome.”

After each setback, “Dr. Rommel would say, ‘Let’s start pushing him back up the mountain,’” Jo said. “Dr. Rommel never, ever gives up. He was there for all of John’s family as much as he was for John … He’s a miracle man, and we love him dearly.”

Early on, John knew how dire his condition was. “Dr. Rommel said he hoped to get me back to 50% or 55% function,” he said. “It will never be 100% again, because of the severity of the heart attack.”

‘Please don’t leave me’

John and Jo Russo are wearing black shirts that say 'stronger together'. Dr. John Rommell is standing between then in a pink shirt with his stethoscope. All are smiling.
John and Jo Russo with Dr. John Rommel. "He’s a miracle man, and we love him dearly.”

Being in CICU for so long began to wear on John. “You’re in a dark room, so days and nights seem the same,” Jo said. “He wasn't sleeping. He started saying ‘Just let me go. I’m suffering.’” More than once, John worried he might die – and part of him wanted to. Rommel told him he couldn’t stop treating him while medical interventions were still available. If those didn’t work, Rommel promised that he and John would talk.

The staff had the same concern. “We thought multiple times that he was going to pass, and we tried to prepare Jo,” Zalaiskalns said.

To inspire John to get well, Jo brought in photos of friends and family and taped those photos on the wall in John’s room. “She was there every day, all day, and was full of positivity,” Zalaiskalns said. “She really helped him get through it.”

Even though John had promised to fight, no one could ignore how sick he was. John’s heart wasn’t the only organ in danger.

Eventually, his kidneys started to fail. “The kidney specialist told us kidneys are finicky,” Jo said. “They’re the first organs to “leave the party when they’re deprived of blood.” John was on 24-hours-a-day dialysis for 14 days.

‘We all bonded’

As sick as John was, he was concerned about the staff getting attached to a patient who could die. “But we all bonded. What a tough position I put them in. As I got better, they grew more invested in me. I wanted to survive; they wanted me to survive.”

The staff couldn’t help but grow attached to John. When he was feeling well, he’d regale them with stories. “John’s had a fascinating life,” Jo said. “He was at Woodstock and eventually worked as a marketing executive at Macy's, where he was deeply involved with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He's had a career that is unbelievable.”

John praises his medical team and family for helping him recover. “The nurses saw how hard I was working,” John said. “I wasn’t moaning and groaning and asking, ‘How did this happen to me?’”

His grown kids, Louis and Grace, came from Philadelphia nearly every weekend. John said they were an integral and comforting part of his healing. In addition, John’s two sisters flew in from Seattle and Buffalo. One sister stayed with Jo for three weeks.

And the CICU nurses were always doing something special. Jo had a birthday while John was in the hospital. “John was intubated for the second time,” Jo said. “I came into his room, and the nurses had put a little party hat on him in my honor. Every one of the CICU nurses was there for that moment.”

“We were all thrilled when the day finally arrived – a little over a month into the journey – that John was wheeled out of CICU,” Jo said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Zalaiskalns added, “The staff lined the hallways as he exited ICU. We were so excited. He was doing so much better and had a bright future ahead. He definitely has a fan club here.”

Zalaiskalns “drove” the bed to the step-down unit. “Both Jo and I didn’t want her to leave us,” John said. Zalaiskalns laid her head down on his chest and said, “I don't want to see you back in my unit – ever.”

John moved to inpatient rehab – the final phase of his hospital stay – on April 15. Rommel told him: “John, I've done everything I can to fix your heart. The rest is up to you.’”

Determined to survive

The couple adopted two mottos from the beginning of their ordeal. “Baby steps” is one. “Slow and steady wins the race,” John said.

The other is: “Stronger together.” The day John finally left the hospital, he and Jo wore shirts she had made. John’s has “Stronger” across the front, and Jo’s reads “Together.”

Another word they live by is “hope.” They think of it as an acronym for “having only positive expectations.”

Challenge accepted.

A special dinner at the hospital as John continued to recover.

John had been fighting – and defying the odds – since early February. He wasn’t about to slow down. “I committed myself to rehab,” he said. “I completed it in three weeks – not the six it was supposed to take. I didn’t want to let Dr. Rommel down.”

Rehab prepared John and Jo for re-entry to real life. But there would be more hurdles. For instance, John speaks in a whisper; his vocal cords were damaged from the intubations.

That’s not all. The Russos have to walk up 18 steps to get to their second-floor apartment. Climbing stairs was a challenge, so a therapist recommended that John carry a bucket. He could climb four or five steps and then sit on the bucket to rest. “By the second or third time we went upstairs, he didn’t need the bucket anymore,” Jo said.

“John’s story is about perseverance against all odds,” Jo said. “Every time he climbed a mountain, a boulder would knock him back down. And then he’d climb another mountain. But we didn’t climb alone.” In addition to friends, family and hospital staff, many people – including some strangers – were praying for John.

“My favorite movie is ‘It's a Wonderful Life,’” Jo said. “I equate it to our situation and imagine an angel trying to get his wings up in heaven, and everyone’s asking, ‘Who is this John Russo everybody’s praying for?’”


Has someone at Novant Health — a doctor, nurse, aide or other team member — been a “guardian angel” to you?

Whether you share your story with an entire department or send a note to a specific care team member, hearing firsthand how they made a difference is meaningful to our team members.

If you are a Grateful patient who would like to share your story of remarkable care with us, please visit this page and scroll to “Speak Your Heart.”

If you would like to honor your caregiver or care team with a Guardian Angel award and recognition ceremony for the care they provided, express your gratitude with a gift through Novant Health Foundation. 100% of your gift supports critical needs in team member well-being and resiliency, or you can select a different area to support patients or programs that are more meaningful to you. Guardian Angels are publicly recognized and receive a purple and silver lapel pin. Visit this page , select the regional foundation serving your community and remember to check the "Guardian Angel" box at the bottom of the online giving form.