Peter Joseph Burtt was drained of every drop of his blood but he did not lose his sense of humor.
“The swimsuit body is gone,” Burtt said Monday from his Kings Beach home. The musician survived an eight-hour emergency open heart surgery on Sept. 3. When his wounds heal, he will have a giant cross-shaped scar on his torso.
“They had to cut down the sternum and open up the rib cage, go in, disconnect the heart, disconnect the lungs, attach them to machinery, drain all of my blood, put me into a coma, do the work they had to do and then bring me back,” he said. “Fortunately, it all went according to their plan. It was pretty intense.”
Before the surgery, Burtt’s heart had a leaky valve and it only worked at 45 percent of its capacity. Then his condition became dramatically worse.
“All of a sudden, my heart just went into failure and I couldn’t breathe at night anymore,” he said. “I had an aortic aneurysm as well as the valve that was damaged. At that point the damage to the valve was so extreme that they had to operate or they said I probably wouldn’t have survived the month. You go to the doctor and you never really expect that. I said, “What do you want me to do?” and he’s on the phone calling the surgeon saying he’s got to get me down there as soon as possible.”
It was the first time the 52-year-old had stayed in a hospital since 1969 when he had his tonsils removed.
The operation at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento was conducted by Dr. Douglas Boyd, who Burtt calls “a rock star.” During the surgery, “every drop” of Burtt’s blood was removed, “and they filled me back up with my own blood and I didn’t need a transfusion, and he was amazed by that, and I was amazed because I didn’t think they were going to do that to me. I had extreme confidence in my surgeon.
“I was concerned I might lose my singing voice, and (maybe) that sounds really stupid, but it happens to be what I do. He said, ‘I have to tell you full disclosure. There is a very delicate nerve there that if we breathe on it or hit it, it could end your singing career.’ ”
Burtt said he does breathing exercises and tried some singing and he thinks he will be OK.
“The hardest part of the recovery is shutting it down and not reinjuring myself,” said Burtt, who on Monday was able to walk to his back yard for the first time since the surgery. He can’t lift anything as heavy as 8 pounds. He is being cared for by his wife, Farida. “She has to work around the clock to make sure I have my medication and I’m fed,” he said. “I’m feeling terrible for her at this point. She’s just been sacrificing from every level.
“I am trying to stay off the painkillers. I don’t like losing control of my consciousness, so I’m dealing with more pain on the physical level in order to maintain that clarity of thought. It’s tough at night. I’ve spent some long nights, man.”
The pain was most excruciating for the first 24 hours after the surgery.
“I had hiccups just tearing me apart,” he said. “It was something else. Every time the hiccup happened, it would expand the rib cage a little bit.”
Although he said he was terrified of taking an antipsychotic drug, Burtt took one dose of Thorazine and the hiccups stopped.
Burtt has been mentally anguished, too. The bandleader of Peter Joseph Burtt and the King Tide has been building a sustainable musical career, playing world blues with guitar and kora, a stringed instrument he learned when he lived in Africa. He said he had to cancel “a ton of gigs” since the operation.
A fund-raising benefit concert, “Tahoe Heart & Soul Concert,” had 10 bands perform on Sept. 17, in the Crystal Bay Casino. It was organized by Zeb Early, who plays guitar in the King Tide and opened a website for donations to help with medical expenses: http://www.gofundme.com/peterjosephburtt.
“Peter is doing as well as possible, considering the situation,” Early said. “He seems to be in good spirits and is very positive and grateful for all the support. He’s a very humble man and would never do something like this for himself.
“He likes to work hard for anything that he receives. He has been anti-Kickstarter movement that is expanding these days. He always pays for his own records and things like that. I didn’t know if he would support something like this, but I spoke with him on the phone and got his approval. He’s overwhelmed with gratitude with all the support people have given.”
“It’s wonderful to have your friends and your family step up and show their love and support,” Burtt said. “Especially here, I feel like we live in such a transitional community where you feel like you don’t have the roots that you might have in a different kind of town. Immediately I was proven completely wrong. It’s humbling.
“What we tend to overlook is that ours is a music-loving community. It’s important to these people in their lives. It’s not like they are just coming to consume the music, it’s feeding the community. So to have the community step up and make these kinds of gestures like the benefit we’re having, or having somebody bring a plate of food, or come by and say, ‘Hey man, whatever you need,’ it’s reaffirming, and I feel like moving forward with a new lease and a new heart, new health and better attitude. It’s going to be a positive thing.”