When Chest Pains Mean You Have a Week to Live

"Our argument was that being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, you can't participate adequately in your health care," said Shannon. "This was a going to be a lengthy recovery in the best of circumstances. It would be many months away from family facing additional surgeries."

The family hired a lawyer and called their local representatives to fight that battle, and eventually Shannon said Access America agreed to cover $50,000 of the tab.

Can I Just Speak to The Doctor?

Meanwhile, Shannon and Ferrari's wife, Loretta Ferrari, had to find a doctor who was ready to treat him in the U.S.

"We had some recommend surgeons and we tried to make some calls, and we were unsuccessful even getting through," said Shannon.

Most often, the family found itself in an endless round of phone menus without getting a human who could help.

"Someone in one case said, 'Well you have to get him in' [for a consultation], and I said, 'Well we can't get him in. He's in Italy."

Family Turned to ABC News for Help

Weeks went by and Ferrari family members tried everything they could think of, including e-mailing a question to the health page of ABCNews.com.

Producers at the ABC News Medical Unit called doctors on the family's behalf and put them in touch with Dr. Thomas H. Gouge, a professor and associate chairman in Department of Surgery at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Gouge could not take Ferrari as a patient because he took a position with a Veteran's Affairs hospital and can only treat veterans.

But he could use his expertise in esophageal surgery to help.

"I treated him only by holding Mrs. Ferrari's hand over the telephone and by serving as the grease to get things rolling," he said.

Gouge found a thoracic surgeon, Dr. Bernard K. Crawford of NYU, and knew of another specialist who spoke Italian and served as a liaison between the hospital in Genoa and doctors in New York.

By Aug. 31, Ferrari was on his way home to be treated by Crawford.

Surviving Boerhaave's Syndrome

Doctors familiar with esophageal perforation -- in Ferrari's case a condition called Boerhaave's syndrome -- say it's not uncommon for patients to be misdiagnosed.

"It kind of simulates a heart attack," Nostrant said. "It can be associated with severe chest pain."

A battery of tests usually can rule out a heart attack within hours, but that doesn't mean doctors will always think of Boerhaave's syndrome.

"I've had patients transferred to my practice from other areas of the country where the diagnoses of a perforation was delayed by 48 hours," Murthy said.

Murthy's department may get 15 cases of an esophageal perforation for every 16,000 patients it treats a year.

Ferrari made it through misdiagnosis, but Crawford said he had months of surgeries ahead.

"He was in the intensive care unit there [in Italy] and he was sort of stuck," Crawford said. "It seemed they didn't know what to do next once they got rid of his sepsis problem."

Repairing the Damage From Ruptured Esophagus

The first task was to let the chest cavity heal from all the infection. That meant diverting what was left of Ferrari's esophagus outside of his body and away from his stomach through a procedure called a spit fistula.

"If he were to drink a milkshake it would come right out on his neck," said Crawford.

Ferrari had to eat from a feeding tube in his abdomen, and the diverted saliva exited into a bag on the outside of the body.

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