DU BOIS, IL (KFVS) - A Perry County, Illinois man who spent a career on his feet wanted to get his mobility back.
So, 63-year-old Jim Slapak opted to have hip replacement surgery earlier this year.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, hip replacement surgeries are expected to increase some 174 percent in the next 20 years.
"So many people were doing it," said wife Jennifer Slapak of the surgery. "Even 80-year-old women were doing it. And within a couple weeks they were able to get out. They were able to walk with a cane. They were able to drive."
But six weeks later, Slapak was gone.
Now, Jennifer wants you to know more about Jim and what he experienced in the weeks leading up to his death.
"I knew Jim for six weeks when I married him," Jennifer Slapak said of her husband Jim.
Their 39-year love affair started off like the plot of a romance novel.
"His mother threw him out of the house because he wouldn't quit seeing me."
Jim and Jennifer Slapak spent nearly four decades together, dedicated to their dogs, their home in the small town of DuBois, and to each other.
"Jim would always take care of me," she said. "He would always make the decisions. When I didn't know what to do, he did."
A registered land surveyor, Slapak spent most of his career on his feet.
Jennifer says the pain in Jim's hip and knees started slowing him down. Last fall, he decided to do something about it.
"He says I want to be active again," said Jennifer. "So, you know I had to respect his wishes. That's what he wanted to do. He wanted to be active again."
Slapak opted to have his right hip replaced.
"He researched it," she said. "He knew what it was going to be. He knew it wasn't going to be an easy road to recovery. But he was going to do whatever he had to get back to the old Jim."
He had the surgery February first up in Effingham.
Slapak's local medical records show he followed up with his family physician in Du Quoin on the 25th to check his diabetes and hypertension. Jim's spirits remained high.
"He was so optimistic," she said. "He thought everything would be alright. Every time I got scared, he would say it'll be okay."
But, Jennifer recalls, new alarming symptoms a week later led to an unexpected visit back to the doctor.
"And I said, you're going to see him today or we're going to sit in your office and you can't close until you see him."
Slapak's records show a March 4 visit for symptoms including shortness of breath and swelling.
The doctor sent him to the local hospital for lab work and chest x-rays an hour later.
Records indicate Slapak went back to his doctor March 13, this time his assessment included "concern for new onset heart failure".
He's scheduled for a cardiac catheterization on April 5.
Jennifer says Jim's continued concerns led him to call his doctor twice on March 26. His last call is time marked 3:30 p.m.
Jim Slapak collapsed in the shower just an hour later.
"Jim was just a nice guy. You know, a lot of people, they think they're a nice guy. Jim was a nice guy. There was only one Jim," Jennifer said through her tears.
I spoke to Jim's family doctor, who says none of Jim's symptoms during those visits was serious enough to have him hospitalized.
He also told me it's tough in a rural area to get a patient in to receive specialized testing, which is why Jim's heart test was scheduled in April.
Jim and Jennifer agreed not to allow an autopsy on the other, so his cause of death is listed as cardiopulmonary arrest.
Simply put, something made his heart stop on March 26.
"He just, he just had a few seconds. And he died right there in front of me. And I couldn't do anything about it," Jennifer recalled of that heart-breaking day.
"If it could happen to us, it could happen to anybody," she said. "And Jim researched it. Jim did everything he was supposed to do."
Jennifer says Jim's hip felt better, but shortness of breath, leg swelling, and "concern for new onset heart failure" had both of them worried.
"That if he could just get this other problem taken care of, that he was on the road to recovery," she said.
And did he feel like the other issues he was having were tied to the hip replacement surgery? I asked.
"Definitely," she responded, because he didn't have a heart problem before."
"I don't know all the details of this particular case, but I think post-operative death is a very uncommon outcome," says Dr. August Ritter, an orthopedic surgeon from Cape Girardeau.
Dr. Ritter, who did not handle Jim Slapak's surgery, notes five common post-operative risk factors with hip replacements.
"Infection, blood clot, dislocation, leg length discrepancies, and eventually loosening of the components, yes," he said.
Dr. Ritter says there are steps patients should take before this kind of surgery.
"Prior to undergoing surgery, our patients are told to look at their overall health," Ritter said. "They go through an educational process at the hospital on things to look for prior to having surgery, such as if you had bad teeth you might want to get those taken care of prior to surgery so you're risk of infection is lower. There's a series of pre-operative testing-this is done, including chest x-rays, EKG's, some blood work, a urinalysis in checking for urine infection, trying to help identify problems ahead of time."
He says there are also warning signs patients should watch out for in the weeks following surgery.
"Post-operatively, our patients are most often in a physical therapy program. Prior to discharge from the hospital, their family or care givers will be looking at their incisions, learning how to do dressing changes. They may have home health nurses who are assisting in that. So, we do a lot of looking at wounds, looking for swelling in the area of the wounds, drainage, or for things like leg swelling and pain in the legs.
I asked Dr. Ritter what he tells his patients if they report those types of symptoms.
"When I have patients who call me with leg swelling, foot swelling, or wound problems I tell them I need to look at them," Dr. Ritter explains. "There's just no way to identify what's wrong over the phone. If they're having shortness of breath, we'd typically tell them to present to the emergency room."
Slapak's medical records show he went to his family physician March 4 complaining of shortness of breath and leg swelling. He then went to the local hospital for lab work and chest x-rays.
A test called a D-Dimer showed an elevated level of protein fragments in Slapak's blood: I verified that put him at greater risk for a blood clot.
The lab flagged the result "critically high" and lab personnel immediately called Slapak's doctor with the results.
Medical records show Slapak called asking for his lab results two days later.
Jennifer says the results were not explained during Jim's follow up on the 13th, and more heart testing would be weeks away.
Jennifer says she received an explanation of the lab report from a doctor at the hospital two weeks after Jim's death.
"And he said when it gets to a certain amount the machine can't read it any higher. It just says 5000 because it's off the chart," she recalled.
Jennifer and Jim Slapak spent 39 years together. She wants you to remember his name, his story, and to ask the questions she wishes she would have asked. She fears patients are not hearing about outcomes like Jim's.
"Just telling them that they can have their youth back but they don't tell them they might not live to see it. And that's what I want people to think about."
Again, I did speak with Jim's family doctor.
He says Jim was in relatively good health, and never showed symptoms serious enough during those office visits to warrant having him hospitalized.
I also asked about that D-Dimer test flagged "critically high."
He said he had no specific comment about that.