June 12, 2012 -- Ronald Poppo, the 65-year-old Miami homeless man whose face was eaten during a vicious attack two weeks ago is "doing well, eating, walking around, and remembers the attack," doctors said today as they updated the public for the first time on the victim's condition.
Poppo gave permission for doctors to discuss his case with reporters but has had no visitors. Doctors described Poppo as upbeat despite significant portions of his face being destroyed and they said he's beginning to remember the horrific and unprovoked attack on the streets of the city.
"When Poppo arrived you could not make out facial features," said Dr. Nicolas Namias, chief of trauma at Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital. "Our primary goal was to close his wounds…[and] allow him to recover before undergoing more surgeries."
Doctors say his left eye was destroyed. His right eye is still there but they covered it with a flap taken from skin from his forehead and scalp. He suffered a brain injury, similar to those experiences by those involved in car accidents, according to doctors. Both his ears remain intact.
"Fifty percent of his face is gone, and he is missing all the features that would make him recognizable," said Dr. Wrood Kassira, Jackson chief of plastic surgery.
Mental health providers have begun seeing Poppo, and doctors described his condition as upbeat but he has many months of surgery ahead.
"He had wounds involving the forehead, both eyes and the cheek. We did skin grafts to his wounds, which are still healing and evolving. He is missing his eyebrows and his eyes. It is hard to see who he is," said Dr. Namias.
Police say 31 year-old Rudy Eugene randomly met Poppo on the side of a heavily trafficked Miami thoroughfare during Memorial Day weekend. Police believe it was a chance encounter that occurred after Eugene dumped his car in South Beach and walked 3 ½ miles across a causeway, stripping off his clothes in broad daylight and then attacking Poppo.
Law enforcement officials continue to speculate that the dangerous new street drug "bath salts" may have played a role in the attack. Autopsy results on Eugene did not reveal any drugs in his system, however toxicology results have not been released.
Eugene was shot and killed by police after they say their repeated pleas to get him to stop attacking Poppo were met with growls. Doctors say police may have also shot Poppo but the chest injuries were not severe. "There was no ill effect from it. It was a simple injury. It was nowhere near the worst of his problems, said Namias
Surveillance video shows that for 18 agonizing minutes Poppo was disrobed from the waist down, kicked, punched and eaten alive before police shot Eugene four times. Poppo then sat up covered in blood as three paramedics quickly got him onto a stretcher, put a neck brace on him and rushed him to the emergency room.
Poppo, who once attended New York City's elite Stuyvesant high School and dreamed of becoming president, will need months of reconstructive surgery that will cost thousands of dollars. A foundation set up in his name has raised $15,000.
"In terms of the cost of the care, the physician doesn't have to become concerned with it…We are allowed to take care of the patient…there will be a long-term cost," said Namias.
Poppo qualifies for Medicare and Medicaid. He will have to decide which operations he seeks to undergo which will most likely involve taking pieces from his skin to attempt to reconstruct his face. Doctors say he may not be a good candidate for a face transplant. "If he doesn't get his vision back the question is if he is more concerned with how he looks or how the world sees him," said Kassira.
Doctors said he is getting a host of benefits that he wasn't getting before the attack. They say he likes orange juice and pizza.
"The guy has got to be a survivor," said Namias who said his actually being homeless before the attack may help him mentally as he tries to recover. "I think he has become very pragmatic about life and on any given day he is living in the moment."
He will remain in the hospital for several more weeks, and then doctors and social workers will assess what to do with him next. He is currently battling a mild infection.
His doctors said he had a message for the public, "Go Heat." (The team is meeting the Oklahoma City Thunder for the NBA championship.)