SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The assassin’s point-blank gunshot pierced the right side of David Ortiz’s back, tore through his liver and intestines and exited just to the right of his navel, still traveling fast enough to lodge in a companion’s thigh.
“Please don’t let me die,” Ortiz pleaded again and again to physicians in the emergency room. “Please don’t let me die.”
It was 9:15 p.m. Sunday, and “Big Papi,” the beloved former Boston Red Sox slugger, was in real trouble, his surgeons said in their first extensive interview. But quick action by them and bystanders, Ortiz’s size and sheer luck may have protected him from a worse fate.
“He was stable. He was talking. But I can’t say he was in good condition,” said Jose Smester, the first surgeon to attend to Ortiz after the star ballplayer was wounded in a bar Sunday evening. “. . . He was at a point, let’s say, where if he wasn’t taken care of right away, he could enter a critical stage.”
Ortiz suffered injuries to his liver, large intestine, small intestine and the membrane that holds the small intestine in place. His gall bladder was also removed. But the bullet did not fragment and apparently missed his aorta and his inferior vena cava, the large blood vessels in the same area.
“Beyond lucky,” said Lynne McCullough, medical director of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center Emergency Department, who did not work on the case. “It wasn’t his time.”
Jose Abel Gonzalez, who led the surgical team, was watching a ballgame at home when he got the call at 9:33 p.m. of a gunshot victim in the emergency room at the Center for Advanced Medicine here. By the time he opened Ortiz’s abdomen an hour later, he found a liter of blood had spilled inside the big man’s belly. Ortiz would lose another half-liter during the five-hour surgery that followed.
The average person has 4.5 to 5.5 liters of blood. In trauma cases such as that of Ortiz, rapid loss of a large amount of blood is a primary concern. It can lead to hemorrhagic shock, which deprives vital organs of oxygen and affects the normal balance of bodily systems. Ortiz was perhaps minutes away from that, the physicians said.
Rep. Steve Scalise, who was shot while practicing with a congressional baseball team in June 2017, reportedly went into shock from blood loss and nearly died.
But Ortiz, 43, played at 6’3″ and 230 pounds. And until his retirement in 2016, he had been a professional athlete or in training to be one since his teenage years.
“It’s a lot [of blood loss],” Smester said. “It’s not enough to bring him to a shock, especially someone like him who weighs a lot. But yes, when we opened him, his stomach was full of blood.”
As fans converged on the hospital and police questioned Ortiz in the hour before surgery, the enormity of what the physicians were facing became clear.
“The injuries he had were lethal, even separately, if they wouldn’t have been taken care of right away, especially the one on the liver,” Smester said. “But in that moment, you don’t think about death, you think about what you have to do.”
“The advantage is that he was always stable,” he added.
Police have arrested nine men in Ortiz’s shooting, including one on a motorcycle outside the bar where Ortiz was shot, who was beaten and held by people in the area. They have said the gunman was paid about $7,800 for the alleged hit on the ballplayer, but no motive has emerged publicly. The bullet that exited Ortiz’s abdomen is believed to be the same one that hit his friend Jhoel Lopez, in the thigh. Lopez was treated for the wound and released from the hospital.
Ortiz was later flown to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he underwent a second surgery and is recovering in intensive care, according to brief statements from his family. The Red Sox and the hospital declined to make health-care providers available for this story or explain why Ortiz had a second operation. The Associated Press has described it as “exploratory.”
Ortiz, considered a near lock for baseball’s Hall of Fame after a 20-year career, is revered in New England and the Dominican Republic, which has sent scores of players to the major leagues. In 2004, Ortiz helped the Red Sox end an 86-year championship drought, and he later captured two more World Series with the club.
In 2013, he took a leadership role after the Boston Marathon bombing. Before the next game at Fenway Park, he told fans from the field: “This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston.’ . . . This is our f—— city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
A patron at the Dial Bar and Lounge, where Ortiz was shot, loaded him into the back seat of his car and raced him to the hospital. He told the Boston Globe that the ballplayer was conscious and talking throughout the six- or seven-minute ride.
As Ortiz was being prepared for surgery, police were questioning him, the surgeons said. They asked if he knew who shot him, and he responded: “I have no problems with anyone. I am a good man.”
The surgery began about 10:30 p.m., Gonzalez said. They first patched his liver, which was bleeding heavily, then went to work on his intestines. The intestines receive blood from the mesentery, a membrane that holds them in place, “and he had a piece of that mesentery blown off,” Gonzalez said. “There was a moderate amount of blood.”
Ortiz’s small intestine was pierced in three places, raising the danger of infection as gut bacteria spilled into his abdomen. “It doesn’t belong there. The body’s normal lymphatic system does not wash that space out,” McCullough said.
After sewing together Ortiz’s intestines, the surgeons said they went back to his liver, which was still bleeding. They called in a liver transplant specialist and made a second incision below Ortiz’s rib to get to the liver. The surgery was completed about 3:30 a.m.
The next day, Ortiz was transferred to Boston. Surgeons at the two medical centers have conferred, and agree that Ortiz can expect a full recovery.
“His life should not change,” Gonzalez said. “He should completely recover. He will have big injuries and might feel a little pain but can have a normal life.”
Bernstein reported from Washington.