Rich Fontana: The Comeback Councilman

'I started breathing heavy, gasping for every breath'

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – You’re active, healthy and energetic one day – until life throws a curve ball.

The next thing you know, you’re in the emergency room struggling to breath.

That’s what happened to Buffalo’s Lovejoy councilman Rich Fontana over the holidays.

Initially, he thought that he pulled a muscle or had walking pneumonia.

“I talked to the doctor. He says, ‘No, your lungs are clear,’ Listened to them. No fluid,” said Fontana.

It was right after Thanksgiving when he began noticing issues with breathing, and felt a pain in his side while working outdoors.

“November 30, I felt like I was 19. December 1, I felt like I was 90,” Fontana recalled.

Richard Fontana

A couple of weeks after his initial visit to the doctor, Fontana was visiting a local senior center and was told that he didn’t look well.

Fontana says his family urged him to go to the hospital.

“I end up with my mother in my bedroom. My brother in the bedroom and my wife in the bedroom. They’re all screaming at me saying get to the hospital.”

So he did.

Fontana says the X-ray results were a shocker.

The 44 year old was informed that he had three blood clots in his lungs and one in a main artery.

“I was just floored,” he remembered.

During a procedure to remove the clot in his artery, Fontana says his condition started to worsen.

“I started breathing heavy, gasping for every breath.”

“And then I kind of lose consciousness. I don’t really remember much after that,” he said.

Fontana, who’s been a councilman for nearly 20 years, says he was put in a medically induced coma and hooked up to a breathing tube.

“They knew I didn’t want a tracheostomy so they tubed me with a tube. So that way my heart rate would come down and I could be a little more sedated while I healed up,” he said.

“To do that they put you into an induced coma and they intubate you, and I was like that for about three weeks in the hospital.”

Fontana says he was in the induced coma through Christmas and the New Year’s holidays.

“My last recollection was being on the table in the operating room trying to breath, and then you wake up three weeks later and you’re in the ICU somewhere in the middle of the room saying what happened.”

He says the clots in his lungs were treated with medication, and that the clotted artery was cleared up with a medical procedure.

But the danger wasn’t over. Now, there would be something else to battle. Fontana’s kidneys were failing.

“During the coma my kidneys had shut down and I was on dialysis up until about March.

Looking back, he says it was all “pretty scary” for his family.

“They told my dad that I was very ill. My kidney doctor said that I was very ill,” Fontana explained. “And they just didn’t know what was going to happen at that point, if I was going to come out of the coma.”

But he did come out, and in a big way.

“They tell me, I don’t remember this, but after about three weeks I came out of the coma by pulling out the tube myself. I pulled it right out, the breathing tube.”

Fontana says he left the hospital in the middle of January and rehabbed for a week.

He was now on the road to recovery, making progress each day.

The blood clots were gone and he was able to get off dialysis.

“Every month, everything kind of got better. Once May rolled around I kind of felt like I got that spunk back, ready to go,” he said.

He was back attending council meetings in February, and by April, Fontana was back working fulltime in the office.

He lost about 30 pounds from the illness, and says it took about a month for his taste buds to come back.

He joked that he’s working hard to make sure he doesn’t gain all the weight back.

As he reflects on those dark weeks in the hospital and his fight to be healthy again, Fontana believes there’s a takeaway here for everyone.

“Listen to your body is your most important message I think. It’s not cliché. It’s really just a true statement. If something’s wrong. If you’re not breathing right, get an X-ray. Check those lungs out because it could potentially be a blood clot,” he said.

Fontana says he was surprised to learn from one of his doctors that lab tests of his blood suggested a genetic link to clotting.

“It’s a gene that’s is found in some Sicilian people and it causes blood to clot, and if you have the gene you’re highly susceptible to blood clotting,” he said

Fontana says his first thought was to tell his brother who he says tested negative for the clotting gene.

“It’s a little bit more of a complex test than your regular blood test,” said Fontana. “The fact that it makes you highly susceptible to blood clots, it should be known.”

Fontana is known in the Lovejoy district as a roll up the sleeves public servant.

Last week, News 4 caught up with him on William Street where he was mowing high grass near railroad tracks.

Lovejoy resident Frank Bittle watched from his porch as Fontana cleared the way with a riding mower.

“I’m very glad to see him back on his feet again,” Bittle told News 4. “I think Richie has been a godsend to this neighborhood. Ever since he’s been there he’s been doing nothing but good.”

Rich Fontana (right) with Lovejoy resident Dan Zaccagnino

Fontana was also welcomed by resident Dan Zaccagnino, who needed help with an overgrown lot next to his house.

“If you call him, no matter what time you call him, he’s there for you,” said Zaccagnino. “Ever since the day I met him until today, I love him. One hell of a guy.”

And while Fontana is back in the driver’s seat again, he has eased his normally very active schedule.

He also plans to spend more quality time with his family. The experience, as frightening as it was, has given him time to reflect on life.

“I’m not going as crazy. I’m not chasing every little thing that’s going on in the neighborhood,” Fontana explained. “You try to use your head a little bit. It also makes you appreciate more family time.”

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