Prince of Hearts

Three-year-old Xzavion Gonzales looks up at his mother in a preoperative room at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

"Am I gonna die, mama?" Xzavion asks Samantha Blier, moments before a doctor gives him a shot to make him sleepy.

Blier is taken aback. No, you're not going to die, she says, you're going to be much better after your operation.

Dr. Michael Teodori, who will be performing major heart surgery on Xzavion's aortic and pulmonary valves in an hour or so, steps into the room.

"I'm gonna make your heart better," the 47-year-old doctor says gently, evoking a smile from the child. He is a wiry, dark-complexioned man who emanates calmness and confidence, especially in such situations.

"You want your teddy bear with you?" Xzavion's father, Pete Gonzales, asks his son.

Xzavion nods that he does, but he's barely awake by now.

"He's seeing little green dudes," says his mother, a 21-year-old Phoenix woman who has Xzavion's name tattooed just above her right ankle, and is wearing a large necklace that also bears his name.

A few minutes before 8 a.m., the boy's parents carry Xzavion to the operating room door. They each kiss Xzavion on the forehead, then hand him to veteran pediatric heart nurse Rita Boese.

Boese takes the child and his teddy bear into the operating room, and sets him down carefully on the table.

The extraordinary world of pediatric heart care is populated by skilled and compassionate medical professionals, by overwhelmed but resolute families and, of course, by gritty little children battling for their lives.

New Times was given unbridled access to this world, as it exists at Phoenix Children's Hospital, and in the heart, mind and hands of Michael Teodori, who is acknowledged by peers as Arizona's finest pediatric cardiac surgeon.

It also is an arena in which the competition for millions of dollars in "business" is increasingly fierce. In Maricopa County, it's Phoenix Children's versus St. Joseph's Hospitals.

Phoenix Children's took an unexpected hit in mid-July, just two months after it had opened in its new location at State Route 51 and East Thomas Road. Water flooded into the main facility after the big thunderstorms of July 14, causing extensive damage on the ground floor, and forcing officials to shut down the operating rooms for six weeks.

The flood was a huge blow to the hospital, which had opened in May about $40 million over budget, but was gaining momentum in the public's consciousness as Arizona's only acute-care hospital devoted solely to kids.

Mike Teodori had been doing surgery almost exclusively at Phoenix Children's since September 1999, but as an independent doctor, not an employee. In May, he'd accepted an offer to be the hospital's chief of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery, a coup for Phoenix Children's.

Then, on the evening of July 27, Teodori and his 15-year-old daughter, Teresa, were driving to their Scottsdale home after attending a movie. Heading southbound on Hayden Road in a BMW sedan, the two were hit head-on by a Chandler woman driving a Toyota 4Runner in the wrong lane.

Teresa suffered only minor injuries, as did the driver of the Toyota. Scottsdale police reports suggest that the Toyota's driver was impaired by prescription drugs used to treat anxiety and other mental disorders.

But Dr. Teodori was knocked unconscious, and suffered a shattered left shoulder and right ankle, among other injuries. He spent two weeks in a Scottsdale hospital, and is still wheelchair-bound at his home.

The doctor says he doesn't know when or even if he'll be able to return to fixing kids' hearts, a task that requires physical endurance and agility in addition to profound expertise as a surgeon.

"I have to rework my entire life right now," Teodori said at his home last week, sounding pragmatic and even somewhat upbeat. "But my goal is to get back to what I love, which is pediatric heart surgery."

The ramifications of the accident also have been enormous for untold children on whom Teodori won't be able to operate. Soon after the accident, his longtime office manager, Maree Court, and her assistant, Lydia Orozco, broke the bad news to anxious parents whose children had been scheduled for surgery with the star doctor.

Dr. Mark Lupinetti, a respected surgeon in his mid-40s who moved here from Seattle in May to become Teodori's partner, has picked up some of the slack created in the accident's wake.

But other repercussions have yet to sort themselves out, including the question of which Valley hospital is going to be the leader in pediatric heart surgery.

Besides being an ace surgeon, Mike Teodori long has been a controversial figure in the politically charged landscape that marks the local pediatric heart scene. In a defining moment in late 1999, Teodori quit performing surgeries at St Joseph's, claiming that his young heart patients were getting far better aftercare at Phoenix Children's.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin