Delaware airman owes life to physician assistant

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Delaware Air National Guardsman Lt. Col. Barry Orbinati said he owes his life to Ed Knox, a local physician assistant.

The two met six months ago when Orbinati walked into Christiana Care Health System’s free-standing emergency department in Middletown, where Knox was working that day.

The 53-year-old was suffering from severe migraines, or so he thought. He said the migraines started a couple of years ago, but they were so bad leading up to his Nov. 13 hospital visit that he was bedridden.

Orbinati figured he would be prescribed something for his migraines and be sent on his way, but Knox didn’t let him off that easy. Orbinati said Knox “interrogated” him trying to get to the root cause of the headaches.

“He came in and goes, ‘I don’t like this,’ he goes, ‘I don’t have a warm fuzzy, I want to do a CT scan,’” Orbinati recalled.

What they found was a 7 mm brain aneurysm.

“By the time [Knox] notified me, he already had called the local ambulance, there was one in the area, he notified the surgeon that was standing by in the operating room and from the time that I found out to the time I was being operated on was like lickety split,” Orbinati said.

“It was 30 minutes from the time he was seen, to the time we were called, to the time he was ambulanced up and that really changed a potentially serious condition, or life-ending condition, into something that was pretty easily managed,” said Dr. Sudhakar Satti, Orbinati’s surgeon. “[Knox] probably saved his life by recognizing this.”

“[Orbinati] was extremely lucky because the way this aneurysm was developing, it most likely was going to rupture within the next few hours to days,” said Dr. Tom Sweeney, Christiana Care’s associate chair of emergency medicine.  

Reluctant hero

As a thank you, the lieutenant colonel from Townsend presented Knox with a coin bearing the Air Force’s emblem on Friday at Christiana Hospital in Newark. 

The military coins for excellence are not only expressions of gratitude, but are also considered a show of respect.

By taking that extra time with him, Orbinati said Knox went above and beyond. But if you ask Knox, he’ll tell you otherwise.

“I don’t think I did anything different than any of my colleagues would have done,” Knox said. “Just take a good history is the key point here. He actually told me, ‘Something’s different about this headache, it’s going into my neck,’ and that just sort of set up the warning bells.”

Turns out a stiffness in the neck may indicate one of two things: a growth on the brain or spinal meningitis.

“It’s very easy for this to be mistaken as something harmless, but Ed Knox is very experienced and he’s also a very special person. He’s quiet, unassuming and he’ll listen to people, he’ll listen to the patient,” Sweeney said. 

Coincidentally, Friday’s coining ceremony comes ahead of Memorial Day, the day on which the nation remembers military members who have died while serving their country. 

“If it wasn’t for what [Knox] did, my parents would be remembering me,” Orbinati said. “They’d be putting something on my grave.”

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