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Joey C Expert Medical Care Saved the Life of a Critically Ill Teen

“This guy [Dr. Lee] saved my life, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s a master of the universe"

In May 2015, Joey Cenci, an active 14-year-old from Highland Park was running a low-grade fever of 100.6 and complained about mild pain in his right leg. His pediatrician reassured his worried mother, Jackie, that it was just a virus and growing pains. Two nights later, however, she woke to Joey banging on the wall of his bedroom.

“He couldn’t move his leg, and he was having a lot of trouble breathing,” recalls Doug, Joey’s father. They raced him to the Pediatric Emergency Department at The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital (BMSCH) at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), where Joey was diagnosed with double pneumonia (a lung infection) and sepsis, an infection that may overwhelm the immune system and result in tissue damage and organ failure.

Tests showed that the pneumonia was caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA—a type of bacteria that’s resistant to certain antibiotics and potentially lethal. MRSA typically causes skin infections, but it can also cause pneumonia. Left untreated, it can lead to sepsis.

“We had no idea how he got it or where it was,” says Jackie. “The hospital’s infectious disease team combed his body looking for a cut, but they couldn’t and anything.” To determine the cause of Joey’s leg pain, the pediatric orthopedic team explored his hip joint to check for a possible infection, but the findings were inconclusive.

Fighting for His Life

Despite intravenous antibiotics, Joey’s condition worsened. Emergency surgery was needed to remove blood and fluid from Joey’s chest, and he was placed on a ventilator to help him breathe better. One week later, his physicians put him in a medically induced coma.

“His hemoglobin and oxygen dropped, and his face, including his lips, was turning blue,” recalls Jackie. Additional testing showed that Joey had a blood clot in his leg.

Joey was given a blood-thinning medication to dissolve the clot in his leg, and this quickly made a bad situation worse. His hemoglobin dropped, and he could barely breathe. An emergent CT scan revealed that Joey was choking on his own blood.

Yi-Horng Lee, MD, Surgeon-in-Chief at BMSCH at RWJUH and Chief of Pediatric Surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, cleared an operating room in the hospital’s brand-new operating suite, known as the Center for Advanced Pediatric Surgery. Within minutes, the nurses and physicians were racing him down the hallway on a gurney.

Three hours later, Dr. Lee reemerged to let Jackie know he had cleared the blood and fluid from Joey’s lungs and removed two-thirds of his right lung, which was badly infected with MRSA. The operation controlled the bleeding, which was caused by the blood-thinning medication.

“Dr. Lee saved my boy’s life,” says Jackie.

While Joey survived, his recovery was not easy. It required the collaboration of a team of sub-specialists from pediatric surgery, pediatric orthopedics, pediatric critical care, pediatric infectious disease, pediatric hematology and pediatric pulmonary medicine—just to name a few.

Rebuilding Strength

Joey and his familyJoey’s medical crisis took a toll on his body. When he entered the hospital, he’d been a robust soccer player and camp counselor. After his ordeal, he had lost close to 30 pounds and was struggling to relearn simple motor tasks like walking and chewing. “He required major rehabilitation because he’d been in a coma for more than a month and hadn’t used any of his muscles,” says Jackie.

Joey was discharged from BMSCH at the end of September and was sent to PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital (CSH), located on the BMSCH/RWJUH campus. He spent a month at CSH, where he received occupational therapy, physical therapy and mental health services, such as art therapy. 

At first, Joey could only tolerate 15 minutes of physical therapy a day. Gradually, the sessions increased until he could handle an hour several times a day. Joey also received occupational therapy to relearn how to eat, dress and perform other activities of daily living. He was taught breathing exercises to help restore his lung function. He was home-schooled for his sophomore year of high school and returned for his junior year. By his senior year, he was back on the soccer team.

Today, Joey is a sophomore at Middlesex County College. He is a lifeguard in the summer, and he teaches children soccer. He has fond memories of Dr. Lee, whom he remembers joking with a few months after his surgery.

“He told me that if anyone asked about my scar, I should tell them I was in a crazy samurai sword fight,” he says. “This guy saved my life, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s a master of the universe and the best man in the whole world.”

Dr. Lee, in turn, credits Joey with being his most gratifying case. The two lost touch for several years until Joey was visiting a friend in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at BMSCH.

“The last time I saw him he was still weak, so I did a double take when this strong, confident young man greeted me with a gigantic bear hug,” says Dr. Lee. “When I saw how great he looked, and how he was paying it forward by cheering on another very sick young patient, it made me realize that this is exactly why I do what I do.”

For more information about the Bristol Meyers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, visit www.bmsch.org.