‘A miracle’: Supports pours in for Riverhead man after waking from coma

They say that true love conquers all. Natasha and Dan Konarski of Riverhead are determined to prove just how true that statement can be.

When Mr. Konarski, 40, had a seizure on the morning of July 14, it was a shock to the whole family.

“Dan had never spent a day in the hospital,” said his younger sister, Stephanie Konarski. “He never had a broken bone, he never had his tonsils out, he never had anything happen that he would have to go to the hospital for, so this was all brand-new to him.”

Mr. Konarski is a lifelong North Fork native. His paternal grandparents own Farmer Mike’s in Cutchogue, which has been in business since 1970. His father, Mike, grew up in Cutchogue and recently retired after 40 years as a clerk at the Mattituck post office, His mother, Barbara, also recently retired after 20 years in a similar position at the Cutchogue post office for 20 years. Before his seizure, Dan had also worked at the post office in Peconic for about 10 years.

When his seizure occurred, Mr. Konarski was rushed to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, then transferred to Northwell Health’s South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore. When paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital that morning, he initially couldn’t remember his name, but he did remember how much he loved his wife of 10 years, Natasha.

“The paramedic that was there, she was like, ‘Well, don’t question that man’s love for you, it’s clearly very deep-seated … he doesn’t know his own name but he knows he loves you,’” Ms. Konarski said.

Dan Konarski at South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore. (Courtesy photo)

At the hospital, doctors found bleeding in his brain. An MRI revealed two brain tumors and doctors acted quickly, performing brain surgery just four days later, on July 18. They were able to remove one tumor successfully and intended to attack the other through radiation, according to Ms. Konarski.

On July 22, however, Mr. Konarski fell into a coma.

“It was honestly the scariest time of my life,” Ms. Konarski said. “I basically went into crisis mode at that moment.”

While her husband was in the coma, the Konarski family learned that the pathology done on the excised tumor showed stage 4 melanoma. In July, Ms. Konarski had taken a leave of absence from her job as a staff accountant at Hampton Jitney, and has not left her husband’s side since.

“It just felt very important to me to be there for him, to let him know he was not alone during the whole time,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if it helped or not. I like to believe it helped him just to try to give him some kind of focal point to hang on to, if there was even such a thing because I knew so little about coma.”

Mr. Konarski started showing signs of waking from the coma about Aug. 9, according to his wife. Doctors had been trying various medications and methods to wake him up, so his family said it’s difficult to determine exactly what worked, but they believe it was the blood patch.

Ms. Konarski explained that her husband’s brain stem reflexes were starting to shut down because his brain was “sagging,” partly due to swelling from the brain surgery. They also later found an undetected cerebrospinal fluid leak, the result of a lumbar puncture he had during the surgery, which caused his brain to start sagging and crimping under its own weight and begin to herniate. The epidural blood patch, according to the National Library of Medicine, is a procedure in which a small volume of the patient’s blood “is injected into the patient’s epidural space to stop a leak of cerebrospinal fluid.” Ms. Konarski said they had to fight to get this procedure approved for her husband, since it’s typically done on patients who are conscious and he was still comatose .

“We were just listening to some music together and at the end of it, I felt a slight squeeze,” she said. “And I thought I was going crazy, I actually had a nurse come in because I needed an objective view … He initially wasn’t doing it. [She said,] ‘Why don’t you ask him; say Dan, it’s Natasha, please squeeze my hand,’ and so when I asked him to do it, he squeezed the nurse’s hand.

“I didn’t know anything about waking up from a coma before this, because all I knew was from TV shows and movies where someone opens their eyes, and they’re just fully awake and ready to go. It’s actually really, really slow,” Ms. Konarski said.

He spent almost two months recovering at South Shore University Hospital before moving to San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport for rehabilitation focused on physical, speech and occupational therapy.

He returned home for the first time on Dec. 5. His sister had set up a Go-FundMe campaign on Nov. 18, setting a goal of $50,000 to defray medical expenses. Costs for the hospital stay and testing alone have already exceeded $35,000. The response has been gratifying and to date has generated $25,760, more than halfway toward the goal.

“We’re just overwhelmed by the support of people,” said Dan’s father, Mike. “[There are] some people we don’t even know who would just give a little bit or give a lot even, and we’re so grateful.”

Staff at South Shore University Hospital have referred to Mr. Konarski as “a miracle.” And now that he’s strong enough, the next step will be to start treating the melanoma. Throughout this journey, there were many moments when neither the family nor doctors were sure he’d make it. But the Konarski family has remained positive about his chances.

“His driving force is just to get back to what life was like beforehand and that’s actually something he told me before the surgery, because he knew that something about life would look different on the other side of the surgery,” Ms. Konarski said. “He didn’t know what he was about to experience but he was just saying, ‘We’ve had a very nice life so far, we’ve done a lot of things, we’ve done a lot of travel, there’s a lot of things we have left to do and I have a full intention that we will do all those things,’ and he was like, ‘The most important thing is that you and I are together and that’s all that matters.’ ”