“Dr. Fegale and his team … they 100% saved my life!” – Mark Cronquist

May 23, 2024

On March 18, Mark Cronquist arrived at Southwest Healthcare Corona Regional Medical Center. He got out of his vehicle, stood up straight, and walked to the entrance. He could already feel the emotion welling up inside him, his heart pounding.

Just six months before, on September 13, 2023, it was an entirely different scenario. Cronquist was brought to the ER by ambulance, on the brink of sepsis, and possibly even death. When he was discharged 22 days later, after what he calls the “disaster of his life,” he told the team that saved him he would be back to visit – and that when he did, he would walk into the hospital. This is his story.

Something just wasn't right

Vascular Surgeon Ben Fegale, MD, and Mark Cronquist shaking hands
Vascular Surgeon Ben Fegale, MD, left, and Mark Cronquist reunite at CRMC during his surprise visit in March.

As the director of the engine department for Joe Gibbs Racing, Cronquist oversees both the NASCAR and Off-Road engine programs that they build engines for. He travels for three to four months each year from North Carolina to various locations around the world on the racing circuits. For the Off-Road races on the West Coast, he typically stays in Corona because of its central location. In early September 2023, he arrived in Corona, on the way to Mexico for a race.

Cronquist had been overweight for years and was uncertain about his health after recent travel to Australia, but things took a turn for the worse on this trip. He went out for dinner and when he returned, he became sick with what he thought was food poisoning. He went to bed hoping he would feel better in the morning. He didn’t. His roommates left on Friday, September 8, for the race, and he told them he would meet them in Mexico on Sunday. But come Sunday, he was still feeling awful, and it was all he could do to get out of bed.

Late the next day, he noticed the toes on his right foot were black. “I sometimes get calluses on my feet, but I remove them, so I wasn’t sure what the problem was,” he says. “I still wasn’t feeling right and was very tired.” On Wednesday, two coworkers and a friend arrived to pick him up and immediately knew something was wrong. They called 911.

A fateful decision

Cronquist was rushed to the ER at Southwest Healthcare Corona Regional Medical Center, where Vascular Surgeon Benjamin Fegale, MD, was consulted. It was not the news Cronquist wanted to hear. “Dr. Fegale told me I had a serious infection at the bottom of my foot and that he would have to amputate my foot right above the ankle,” he says. “The infectious disease doctor agreed, saying if they did not remove it, the infection would spread to my heart.”

Delaying a few hours meant possibly removing more of his leg. Cronquist also knew that by waiting, he was risking his life. He agreed to the surgery and notified his girlfriend, Lisa Fox, who rushed to the airport to catch the only flight that day to Corona.

For her, the hardest part was not knowing what awaited her at the hospital. “A nurse told me the surgery would take two hours, and here I am running through an airport to catch the flight, and in the air for five hours with no contact. I landed at 11 p.m. and got a ride to the hospital,” she says. “The nurses were so kind, and one of them even helped me figure out where I could stay. I was so grateful for them, especially after traveling all day.”

Touch and go

Cronquist was in recovery by the time Fox arrived and she was able to get an update from Dr. Fegale. He had removed Cronquist’s foot above the ankle and cleared the infected areas. “I asked if he would have to amputate further and Dr. Fegale told me he would remove as much as needed to make sure no infection remained,” she says.

For the next few days, the wound was monitored and cleaned. In the meantime, physical therapists came in to work with Cronquist, teaching him how to transfer into a wheelchair, onto a bed and how to get to the bathroom. “They were in there right after the surgery. They were amazing,” he says.

By September 17, things were not clearing as expected, so Dr. Fegale operated again, removing more of Cronquist’s lower leg, up to the mid-calf. “Dr. Fegale was being conservative with the first surgery, but the tissue and infection did not clear as we had anticipated,” says Cronquist. “But after the second surgery, we were more hopeful.”

"They saved my life!"

On September 22, Dr. Fegale inserted a wound vacuum tube, which removes any fluids that might lead to more infection. Three days later, the tube was removed and the area cleaned. Finally, on September 27, Dr. Fegale performed the last surgery, to close the wound and allow for healing.

“Dr. Fegale and his team, and all of these nurses – they 100% saved my life, and I am forever indebted to them. The biggest relief was knowing the amputation was below the knee,” says Cronquist. “I also learned I had diabetes. But I have since improved my diet and overall health, lost 70-plus pounds, and no longer need to take medication for it.”

An emotional farewell

On October 4, after 22 days in the hospital, Cronquist was discharged from Corona Regional so he could return home to North Carolina. “It was a very emotional sendoff,” he says. “The nurses all came to say goodbye. They had become my second family, and with us being so far away from home, we felt very much taken care of.”

“Linda Pearson, who is the marketing director, was an incredible advocate for us. She definitely gets things done, and we are so grateful for having met her. She is an angel,” says Cronquist. “We truly had a wonderful experience here. From the folks who clean the rooms, to the chefs, to the security personnel, all of the medical professionals who were in and out of the room every day – they are what makes this hospital great. It’s not just a building, but it’s the people inside. They took care of both of us, especially knowing we were from out of the area. They genuinely wanted to help us with whatever we needed. That’s why it was so emotional leaving.”

Fox wholeheartedly agrees. “They took excellent care of Mark, but they also looked after me. They are like family,” she says.

Learning to walk again

Once back home in North Carolina, Cronquist spent two days in a local hospital for observation and evaluation of his wound. “All of my doctors were very impressed with the results of the surgery and said it was perfect,” says Cronquist. “They removed the staples and stitches, did bloodwork to make sure the infection was gone, and then I was cleared to go home.”

A few days later, he was fitted for his prosthesis, receiving it on December 22. Cronquist was determined to make the most of his physical therapy, and on January 7, he walked into the rehab for the first time without using his walker. “My ‘new leg’ is perfect, and I get in 3,000 steps a day, but I am working up to 5,000 steps,” he says.

A surprise visit

On March 18, 2024, he was back in Corona for racing, and stopped in to see everyone. “I wanted to thank everyone again for everything they did to save my life. They were all a big part of my life-changing experience. I also got to see some of the nurses who were not there the day I left. It was definitely an emotional reunion for all of us,” says Cronquist. “They put their heart and soul into caring for both of us, and this hospital became a home away from home. We are forever grateful!”