Lots of folks show up at campaign events to meet a candidate who wants to save taxpayers money.
But Payson resident Chris Walker showed up on Sunday to meet the candidate who saved his life.
In a reunion campaign strategists can only dream about, Walker showed up at Sunday’s Payson reception for U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Rich Carmona to swap recollections about the day Carmona brought Walker back from the dead by cracking open his chest, stitching up major vessels torn by a bullet, bypassing Walker’s heart and removing his shredded liver.
The former U.S. Surgeon General, war hero and Tucson trauma surgeon recently sewed up the Democratic nomination and over the weekend opened his general election campaign against Republican nominee Rep. Jeff Flake, who has a Rim Country hometown advantages in the form of numerous relatives from his deeply rooted pioneering Mormon family.
But Carmona won the hometown edge on Sunday, thanks to the dramatic reunion with the local fellow Carmona saved from a bullet through the heart.
Walker, who has lived in Payson since 2004 and sells safes and security systems to banks all over the state, said his mother called him with word that Carmona planned a quick stopover in Payson. Not surprisingly, Walker says he knows how he’s going to vote.
“Are you kidding me? He’s not a politician. I don’t think the man would be doing what he does because he doesn’t like getting into that kind of dirty atmosphere. I don’t think there’s a better person that could be representing the state of Arizona.”
One might forgive Walker a certain emphatic bias, considering the circumstances under which Walker and Carmona first met.
Walker was attending a Monday Night Football gathering of bank executives and tellers in a Tucson watering hole when an altercation broke out between one of the bankers and a fellow in the bar. Walker headed for the ruckus, hoping to break things up.
“This guy was causing some problems. A fight broke out. I somehow got involved with it. I grabbed the guy and pinned him to the wall and told the bartender to come to get him. He just pulled the gun and shot me.”
The bullet tore through his chest and lung, hit the major blood vessel that returns blood to the heart, passed through his liver and lodged against his spine.
The fire department paramedics made a crucial decision as Walker’s life’s blood leaked into his chest cavity. They could have taken him to one of two nearby hospitals, but neither one was certified as a trauma center — a hospital with surgical teams and surgical specialists on call continuously.
Instead, they drove several miles to reach Tucson Medical Center, where Dr. Carmona worked as a trauma surgeon. Carmona later played a key role in establishing a Tucson trauma system and ran the county health system.
Born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents, Carmona dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Special Forces at the age of 16. He earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars in combat in Vietnam and started his medical career as a medic. After leaving active duty, he earned a nursing degree in New York, a B.A. from the University of San Francisco and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Arizona. He later trained as a doctor and trauma surgeon at the UCSF.
Along the way, he also served as a Pima County deputy sheriff and served with the SWAT team, where he won an award after killing a murderer in a shoot-out after he interrupted the man’s assault on another victim.
President George Bush nominated Carmona to serve as U.S. Surgeon General in 2002. He served until 2006, although he came into conflict with the administration when he refused to water down several scientific reports and insisted on releasing studies demonstrating the health effects of second-hand smoke.
But Walker’s arrival in the Tucson Medical Center emergency room with no pulse and no measurable blood pressure posed a completely non-political problem for Carmona, then crusading to upgrade Tucson’s trauma system.
The bullet had torn the vena cava, the major vein returning blood to the heart. As a result, much of Walker’s blood had already drained into his chest cavity.
Carmona faced an interlocking set of problems. First, he had to sew shut or bypass the torn vena cava. Second, he had to do something about the torn liver. Even if he repaired the vena cava, Walker would quickly bleed out through the bullet hole in the liver.
Within five minutes of Walker’s arrival, Carmona’s surgical team had cracked open his chest. They quickly repaired the damage to the vena cava. Then they took a desperate chance. They cut a hole in the heart, inserted a bypass tube, and routed the blood pumped out from the heart around the liver. That allowed them to remove the liver and make repairs. The surgeons later put the repaired liver back into Walker’s body, relying on the liver’s unique ability to regenerate.
All they could do then was to try to bring his core temperature back up and hope that the hundreds of stitches and patches held.
Miraculously, Walker survived, although he lost one lobe of his lung. He stayed in touch with Carmona off and on over the years — although, truth be told — that was mostly his mother.
“It all changed me,” said Walker. “To have somebody like him there at that moment. I don’t think it was a coincidence. It was some kind of intervening going on there,” said Walker. “He said he’d done everything he could. After that, it was out of his hands. He said, somebody must have wanted me here for a different reason.”
Carmona’s reunion with the blonde, soft-spoken Walker dominated the quiet meet-and-greet Sunday in Payson. At the gathering, Walker learned about the cut in his heart for the bypass tube to get around his damaged liver for the first time.
That’s not the first time Carmona has capitalized on his campaign karma to take the politics out of a political event. Earlier this year, a Republican operative hired to shadow Carmona with a tape recorder in hopes of catching a useable flub on tape approached the surgeon after an event and got the doctor to take a look at a painful swelling on his leg. Looks like a cyst, said the Surgeon General. Best get it looked at.
Oh, yeah. Carmona also said that the Affordable Health Care Act represents a good start at addressing the problem posed by having 50 million Americans without health insurance — but lamented the failure of the bundle of reforms to address the crucial underlying question of spiraling medical costs.
Rep. Flake, on the other hand, wants to repeal all those reforms as quickly as possible.