Coronavirus News: Navy veteran who dedicated her life to others recovering from health battle

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A woman who joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and served as a medic in a California naval hospital before dedicating her life to people with disabilities is now recovering from her own health battle, as well as a personal tragedy.

Teri Russo became a mother after leaving the service, and over the years, she adopted four boys with Down syndrome. She's known on Staten Island for her big heart, but in April, it was her heart that gave out.

"They found two blockages, so I had a double bypass," she said. "But I don't remember any of that."

But her cardiothoracic surgeon at Staten Island University Hospital/Northwell Health, Dr. Mohammed Imam, remembers it all -- in part because of his patient's reputation.

"She has dedicated her life to the service of others," he said. "She inspired us and motivated us."

He and his team were treating Russo during the heights of the coronavirus pandemic, which presented some big challenges.

"Most patients after heart surgery go to the cardiothoracic heart ICU, but that unit, the ICU was full of COVID patients," he said. "We were very innovative and made the operating room into the ICU."

That medical ingenuity helped Russo survive. And while her heart is repaired, it remains broken because days before her heart attack, one of her sons, Kris, died from COVID-19. He was buried on her 80th birthday.

"He had difficulty breathing at home," she said. "We 911'd him, put on a vent. That's how he spent the last days of his life."

She had adopted Kris when he was 10 days old. Another son, Damian, died seven years ago. But two of her other sons, Ronnie and Alan, still live with her.

"What keeps me going? The kids keep me going," she said. "I have a purpose in life, and I'm not finished with it. So that keeps me going."

She is a veteran and a mother who is the epitome of resilience.

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