This survivor could be 'the first person on the planet' to battle Covid-19 and an imminent heart attack — and win
Updated 3:43 AM ET, Thu September 24, 2020
(CNN)Ed Bettinelli has been living a charmed life.
"I always say if my bank account was as rich as my soul, I'd be very wealthy," said the 63-year-old, with a chuckle.
A professional drummer since age 15, Bettinelli has opened for such music greats as Bon Jovi and Pat Benatar, as well as Asia, the Average White Band, The Tubes and the Split Enz, among others.
He and his band Preview landed a major record deal with Geffen in the '80s and with RCA in the '90s. During his career, he worked with legendary rock 'n' roll producer Keith Olsen, who produced hits for top artists like Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy Osbourne, the Grateful Dead and Santana.
His step-daughter, actress Holly Marie Combs, even played Piper in the hit TV series "Charmed."
"I've had a lot of wonderful experiences and achieved a lot of things that I dreamed about doing," said Bettinelli, who now teaches drumming from his home office overlooking the Hudson in Dobbs Ferry, New York. "I've had a pretty fulfilling life."
Despite his accomplishments, Bettinelli was totally unprepared for his latest triumph: He battled an imminent heart attack and Covid-19 simultaneously -- and won.
"After Covid-19 he had robotic, minimally invasive coronary bypass surgery, which comprises less than 1% of all cardiac surgery," said Dr. John Puskas, chair of cardiovasular surgery at Mount Sinai Morningside in New York City, who operated on Bettinelli.
"So I will be willing to bet he's the first person on the planet to have recovered from Covid-19 and then had invasive, robotic bypass surgery."
'I had no idea'
It was early February -- Covid-19 was still a distant threat in China -- when Bettinelli learned that he was in danger of having a "widow maker" heart attack. It meant he had a 100% blockage in a critical artery on the left of the heart -- most don't survive, hence the name. To make matters worse, he also had major blockage in several other blood vessels.
Again, Bettinelli was lucky. Unlike many with the condition, he had an attack of painful angina -- collapsing to the floor in his home -- as a warning. Still, learning he had a genetic condition that could kill him at any second was a shock. He'd aced his last few physicals.
"I've always kept myself in shape," Bettinelli said. "I am the last person on the basketball court to tire. I've run 10 marathons. I had no idea I had a heart problem."
Doctors at Mount Sinai quickly put in a stent, but what Bettinelli really needed was bypass surgery. Yet the day before his procedure was scheduled in mid-March, the hospital shut down elective surgeries due to the pandemic.
By that time the virus was decimating New York City -- with hundreds of cases and dozens of deaths each day.
Bettinelli's surgery was elective because he had an unusual advantage: His heart had grown a new artery to compensate for reduced blood flow -- yet another example of his charmed life.
"It's the heart's way of basically doing a bypass," Bettinelli said. "I have an extra artery that apparently fewer than 20% of people have."
Two weeks later Bettinelli's luck ran out. He began to run a fever and show other signs of Covid-19.
Despite being a high-risk priority due to his heart disease -- one of the conditions that often makes Covid-19 turn deadly -- Bettinelli couldn't get through the lines at the hospital to be seen.
"This was the thick of it, when New Yorkers were getting their ass kicked by Covid," he said. "They were setting up beds in Central Park and Mount Sinai had completely enclosed the atrium and subdivided it for beds."
A drive-through test confirmed Bettinelli had the virus. Quarantined in a separate part of his home, far away from his family, he battled recurring fevers and overwhelming fatigue. He fretted, often not knowing if his symptoms were due to the virus or his failing heart.
Then, another blow. His elderly parents on Long Island were also diagnosed with Covid-19. But they would not take the disease seriously, Bettinelli said.
"They thought the virus was a conspiracy. I was losing my mind about it," he said. "I was on the phone with my mother the day before my 89-year-old father went into the hospital and she was downplaying the virus."