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Richard Zednik barely felt the skate slice into his throat, but the blood that immediately gushed from his neck gave him all the information he needed. He knew he was in grave danger if he didn’t skate to the Florida Panthers’ bench. He was well aware he could be facing death.
“I knew I was in trouble,” Zednik said Friday before leaving the Mansion on Delaware, where he spent Thursday night after being discharged from Buffalo General Hospital, and flying back to Florida. “I didn’t feel anything, but there was just so much blood. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I knew I had to get to the bench.”
Jessica Zednik had barely slept last Saturday night after caring for their 4-year-old daughter, Ella, and spending all day Sunday in Delray Medical Center in South Florida. Ella, who had been battling a high fever, had begun feeling better in the afternoon and was well enough to go home later that evening. It already had been a long two days. Jessica wanted to plop on the couch.
Little did she know that her husband already had been rushed to the hospital after having his carotid artery severed by a skate in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. In the hours and days ahead, Zednik and his wife came to realize how fortunate he was to survive. Lucky man, Richard Zednik. Lucky man.
Looking back, it was strange. Hours earlier, someone at the hospital had asked Jessica whether she worried about her husband’s safety. In fact, she had. Zednik had suffered concussions, had his nose broken and had stitches numerous times. But major injuries, she told her acquaintance, were extremely rare.
“In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Never,’ ” she said.
She had been home for 10 minutes when the telephone rang. It was injured left wing Jozef Stumpel, a good friend who didn’t make the road trip with the Panthers. He asked Jessica if she was watching the game. No, she said. He told her to sit down. This was serious. Richard had an accident during the Buffalo game. His carotid artery had been severed.
Jessica Zednik immediately thought the worst. Severed artery meant death. She was going to lose her Slovak husband in Buffalo, making her a young widow and leaving Ella without a father. In an instant, what seemed a charmed life had been flipped upside down.
“All I heard was, ‘Your husband had a really bad accident. His throat was slashed.’ And then it was total panic. I’ve never seen that happen in life. I imagined what I saw in movies. They said, ‘major artery,’ and I didn’t think he was going to make it. I was panicking and screaming and crying.
“So many thoughts go into your head. You think, ‘I didn’t get to have another baby yet. I’ll always be alone. Please give him another chance. Why him? Why him?’ ”
In Buffalo, Richard was worried, too. Dr. Leslie J. Bisson, a man he just met and will never forget, had put pressure on his neck to help slow the bleeding as the ambulance began snaking its way through the streets toward the hospital. Zednik was already in surgery by the time Jessica took the call.
The hospital staff had been watching the game on television, knew Zednik was on his way and immediately sent for blood. Zednik had been stabilized, but he was far from being safe. There could be complications in surgery. Death was less likely but still possible.
“I remember everything,” Zednik said. “I remember the doctor holding my neck and telling him, ‘Don’t push so hard. I can’t breathe.’ I talked to my trainer [Dave Zenobi]. I remember them saying, ‘OK, go to surgery.’ ”
Jessica was instructed to get to the airport for a charter to Buffalo to be with her husband. She packed her bags and made arrangements for someone to stay with Ella, who had no idea her daddy’s life was in danger.
The thought of having someone else drive her to the airport never crossed her mind. She threw her suitcase in the car and began speeding toward the airport, driving more than 100 mph and ignoring police on the way. What could they do, give her a ticket? First, they had to catch her.
“Now, when I think back,” she said. “I don’t even remember seeing the road.”
Five minutes before she boarded the airplane, she received good news. Richard was in stable condition after successful surgery. Richard’s artery was intact, and he was going to survive. Jessica would be fine. Ella’s daddy would come home.
“She’s waiting for us,” Jessica said with a laugh. “She thinks we went to the movies.”
Surgery a success
Richard came through surgery as strong as could be expected. Dr. Sonya Noor repaired the artery that had been hanging by a thread. Had it been cut all the way through, it likely would have recoiled in his neck, and death would have been back in the equation. He was lucky.
“I knew right away he was in such good hands,” Jessica said. “They briefed me a little bit and made me feel safe. When I saw him, it was a big shock. But everybody made me feel safe. He was OK, and everything was perfect.”
The scariest and most horrific scene in HSBC Arena was just that, a scary and horrific scene, but nothing more. He had cheated death. Jessica was on her way with Panthers owner Alan Cohen’s wife, Karen. Two women from vastly different worlds who had never met quickly became friends. There would be more.
Her two sisters arrived from Montreal on Monday and spent two days here before going back home knowing everything would be fine.
Zednik was discharged from Buffalo General on Thursday evening, spent Valentine’s Day night with his wife and was anxious to get home to Florida on Friday.
“It makes you appreciate,” Jessica said. “I didn’t really care about the chocolates.”
‘Life is so fragile’
For five days, Richard and Jessica Zednik learned plenty about life from his brush with death. His stay in Buffalo General gave them time to take a step back and examine their lives. They were always in such a hurry, with him playing a fast game and her staying busy back in South Florida.
Jessica was raised in Montreal, a hockey city. She is an actress and mother who bears a striking resemblance to actress Eva Longoria. She speaks French, English, Spanish, Italian and Slovakian, a bright woman many would envy on most levels.
It was time to slow down and take a look around. Hockey had been such a huge part of their existence together, but it was nothing. Jessica saw a replay of the incident on television from a distance, turning her head the moment Olli Jokinen’s skate inadvertently clipped her husband’s neck.
“Life is so fragile, and you don’t own it,” Jessica said. “You never know and take everything for granted. Not anymore, believe me. It’s a reality check.”
For her, the worst part wasn’t the blood. It was the thought of her husband being scared of dying. She had yet to see the images of his frightened, ashen face.
“I was so scared of seeing his face,” Jessica said. “I was so afraid to see the panic in his eyes. He’s a father. I can’t imagine him thinking, ‘I can’t die, I can’t die, I have to see Ella growing up.’ He’s such a strong man. Just seeing him like a little boy . . . was too much.”
New friends for life
What the Zedniks realized, as much as anything during their stay in Buffalo, is how much people care about one another. Richard marveled Friday before boarding a flight for Florida how so many people came together in so little time. They saved his life, helped his wife and nursed him back to health.
It was a rare hat trick. He craved chicken wings, so a Kaleida Health employee ordered out from Picasso’s Pizza. He needed a pair of sneakers, so someone took a ride to Fleet Feet Sports. He needed privacy, so they slipped the Zedniks into the Mansion on Delaware and out of town Friday morning with barely a whisper.
“Last night, I had a lot to think about,” Zednik said. “You never know. It was like a dream, this feeling that I can breathe. I’m here. We have a game [Friday] night. One week happened so much. Everything just went so well. You look at it like that, and I was lucky. They saved my life. After surgery, they were amazing.”
Jessica couldn’t say enough about the staff at Buffalo General for how they treated Zednik and calmed her nerves when she was shaken and unsure. People she never would have known under any other circumstances came to her rescue.