The next time the conversation turns to tough old guys, you might want to save a place on the list with John Wayne for 73-year-old Dale Carman, who had a nail embedded in his heart while mowing his lawn and told his wife it was only a flesh wound.
Lucky for Carman, his wife, Louise, knew that he was injured more seriously than he thought. After demanding that he go to the hospital, she impressed on emergency room personnel that he was in more pain and worse shape than he would let on.
Carman, a big man who laughed often while telling his story to TODAY’s Natalie Morales, recounted how he had been mowing his lawn Oct. 5 in Stony Brook, N.Y. on Long Island when he felt something hit him on the right side of his chest.
“I was almost sure it was merely a stone thrown up, and at first maybe I’d probably got a cracked rib,” he said. “I mowed another 120, maybe 130 feet.” Then, he said, “I looked down and my shirt was completely covered with blood. I thought, ‘Well, it’s a little more serious than that. Maybe it’s a broken rib.’ “
But instead of a rock, what hit him was a four-inch finishing nail – the kind that doesn’t have a broad, flattened head. The fact that it had found its way into his heart was nothing short of astonishing, said the man who would extract it during nearly two hours of surgery - Dr. Todd Rosengart, the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island in New York.
“To say this is one-in-a-million is understating it for sure,” Rosengart said. “I actually couldn’t believe this was possible, for a projectile to come up, strike right in the right place between the ribs,” and stop completely in Carman’s heart.
It was the kind of freak injury that killed Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, when he was hit by a stingray while diving off the Australian coast. But Irwin had pulled the ray’s barb out, allowing his heart to hemorrhage and killing him instantly. In Carman’s case, the nail was completely within his chest cavity; with nothing protruding to pull out, he didn’t even know it was in there.
Indeed, when Carman walked back inside his house, Louise Carman saw the bloody T-shirt and asked what had happened.
“He simply said, ‘I think I broke a couple of ribs. I’m going to to take a shower,’ “ she told Morales. “I said, ‘No, we’re going to the emergency room.’ He said, ‘Don’t be an alarmist, it’s just a couple of ribs.’ “
Louise Carman pointed out that her husband is strong for his – or any – age. He walks five miles a day, has a standing heart rate of 60, and counted mowing his lawn as good exercise. He’s also not the type of guy who ever admits he’s hurting.
Carman finally promised to go to the hospital, but first he took his shower. “When I took my shirt off there was a bump - half the side of a ping-pong ball and a hole in my chest,” he told a TODAY Show producer during a pre-interview. Even then, he climbed in the shower to clean up.
“When he got out of the shower, he was noticeably weaker,” Louise Carman said. “I had to dry him and dress him. Then we got into the car and drove the hospital, and he kept getting progressively weaker. And this is a very strong man who doesn’t complain of pain.”
She drove into the emergency carport at Stony Brook Hospital, where she was told she would have to more her car to the parking area. So her husband got out and walked into the emergency room by himself.
When she got back, Louise Carman kept telling people that her husband’s case needed immediate attention. She credits a nurse with comprehending that something was seriously wrong and taking matters into her own hands.
“He belongs in acute!” the nurse shouted. “He belongs in acute.”
An X-ray had shown the nail in his heart. Rosengart took over, ordered the CAT scanner cleared, and rolled Dale Carman in.
Rosengart’s urgency was the first time that Carman realized he was in as much danger as his wife kept insisting he was. “So then I got a little concerned,” he said with a laugh.
Louise Carman feared that she would lose her husband, but more than two hours after he was wheeled in for emergency surgery, Rosengart came out and showed her the bent nail he had successfully removed from Dale Carman’s heart.
Just two weeks later, he looked healthy and said, “I feel great.”
Morales asked him if he was going to continue to cut his lawn.
“I don’t think so. She’s wanted me to get landscapers for years,” he said, referring to his wife. “ I think I will now.”