The Operation


Ronnie Peterson arrives at the Niguarda hospital in a stable condition, and is immediately x-rayed. 

An hour or so after the crash Ronnie's wife Barbro is contacted by Colin Chapman. Normally Barbro joins Ronnie during the GP, but this time she has decided to stay at their apartment in Monaco to take care of their two year old daughter Nina. She hasn't seen the crash on TV since it is not broadcasted directly. She gets ready to immediately get to Milan. One of the team managers, Bernie Ecclestone, puts his private plane at her disposal and it gets a special permission to land in the dark on the airport of Nice.

Earlier Ronnies parents May Britt and Bengt have been contacted in their home in Írebro. They have been watching the race on TV and quicklly realized that Ronnie was involved in the big crash. They have also seen Ronnie in his characteristic yellow overall, being dragged out of the burning wreck. The first to contact them was Ronnies manager Staffan Svenby. He could inform them that Ronnie was alive and that he was on his way to the hospitalto find out more details. Ronnie's parents had also contact with Barbro and know that she is to go to to Milan.

When Staffan Svenby arrives he immediately gets in touch with Ronnie.

"He instantly recognized me and wondered what would happen at the hospital. I informed him that the doctors were preparing an operation, and that the injuries were not cosidered as life threatening and then he said - OK."

Less than two hours after the crash the race at Monza is started again. Before the shorter race - 40 laps - a bulletin is released from the hospital where they are worried over the blood circulation in Ronnie's legs. According to professor Watkins the doctors judged it necessary to fix Ronnies bonepipes in a correct position with internal or external nails and pins. 

One of the doctors, Nicola Pezzi, had also made some fruitless attempts to talk to Ronnie. He had nothing in particular to say, but just wanted contact with the patient.

At 11 PM on the Sunday night the doctors of the Niguardia hospital hold a press conference. They announce that Ronnies condition is satisfactory and - this is remarkable - that he will walk in two to three months! 

Lennart Eriksson of the Swedish newspaper Expressen was present at the press conference. He tried to contact Ronnie several times:

"But he was too ill, too affected by the medicine. Those who say that Ronnie gave the go ahead for the operation personally are wrong. He was completely out of it at certain times. By chance I met a Swedish doctor working at the hospital and he had a different view on the condition. He asked me what hotel I stayed at and promised to telephone me me if anything changed (Which he did at 6.30 in the morning)." 

Prior to the operation Staffan Svenby has been consulted by the doctors. He has a difficult decision to make over how and where Ronnie is to be treated. Staffan telephones Sid Watkins, three Swedish doctors and other Italian doctors. Even Ronnie who is contious is presented to the options they have to choose from:

  • Stay at the hospital in Milan or fly to another hospital - Swiss or Austria is mentoned (where they have large experience from complicated fractures after alpine skiing acidents), but even Sweden and England is mentioned.
  • Wait with operating, riscing a worse result, possibly amputation.
  • Operating at once, riscing bone marrow embolism.

Earlier during the evening Reine Wisell has arrived to the hospital.He talked to Ronnie who after having been given painkillers was clm and almost a little optimistic:

"It is crap with the legs! But if they could fix Graham Hill, they ought to be able to fix me as well. I'll be OK for the next season... "

After the consultations Svenby decides that Ronnie is to stay in the Niguardia hospital and that he is to be operated at once. The decision is made when it is clear that a top surgeon is to be present, someone who is is to foot and leg fractures like Ronnies. When Ronnie is informed he is calm and focused. Staffan has told that they then phoned for the surgeon to perform the operation, since he wasn't on duty at the moment and thet it was around 7 pm. The decision on what to do with the worst fractures - whether to operate or amputate - was made based on Ronnies last words to Svenby:

"I want to be able to drive on Watkins Glen. Please make it possible!."

Reine looks at the X-ray pictures together with Ronnie and tries to cheer him up. They both agree that his injuries should be able to fix. Then Ronnie falls asleep. The situation is cautiously optimistic, even if it is uncertain if Ronnie will ever be able to drive a racecar again. 

A few hours after the race professor Watkins is driving to the hospital. He is joined by Colin Chapman and Mario Andretti who drives the Rolls Royce he has been provided during the Italian GP. It takes a long time to get loose from the crowds at Monza. Mario knows a shortcut and finally they are on the freeway. When they arrive at the hospital the operation has already begun a couple of hours ago. Professor Watkins is invited to join the operating team. 

Everything seems to go well and the surgeons are working on fixating the last fractures. The anaesthesist announces that all Ronnies vital signals are fine. A bloodtransfusion with the correct bloodtype is performed. Watkins looks at the X-ray plates and can count to 27 fractures. The responsible doctor announces that the operation is finished and that everything has gone according to the plan. All in all the operation has taken two and a half hour and regarding the circumstances it is not a long time. Ronnie is to be moved to the intensive care ward wher his collleague Vittorio Brambilla already has been taken care of.

One of Ronnies old friends, the journalist Fredrik af Petersens, has taken himself to the hospital. In his book "The Viking Drivers" he describes how he gets a chock when he arrives at Niguardia. 

"It is filthy and all over the floors are cigarette butts. You didn't get the feeling of being at a hospital and evereywhere were photographers waiting for the PICTURE. Somehow it was a nightmare you only wanted to wake up from."

At this point noone thinks that Ronnie is about to die. In the waiting room Svenby contacts Ronnie again - others present are Andretti, Chapman and professor Watkins. Over the phone professor Watkins reassures Barbro that he thinks that Ronnie will recover. Plans are made for her to get to Milan in the morning and a helicopter is arranged.

It is now past midnight and Chapman and Andretti decide to go back to Villa d'Este in Como. Staffan Svenby manages to arrange a hotel room for himself and Sid Watkins near the hospital - they have earlier checked out from their regular hotels.

The Italian orthopaedist Ernesto Zerbi, one of Italys most skilled and renowned surgeons, joined the operation when it had already begun, he took an active part in it. He explains Ronnies injuries. They can be summarized like this:

  • Eight fractures on the right leg
    • One fracture over the ancle - the bone is straight ( a common injury among traffic victims and skiers)
    • One slanted fracture below the knee (a crack in the shank), not too difficult an operation.
    • Right femur severly damaged, must be nailed together, relatively simple though.
  • Four fractures in the right foot:
    • Severely damaged, at least four, heel crushed, bones are tattered.
  • Achilles tendon's hold torn off.
  • Fracture on left fibula.
    • fibula is off
  • Burns on left hand and arm towards shoulder.

Dr Vecchi shows Ronnies injuries

LAter during the nighet doktor Ernesto Zerbi said:

"It is far from certain that Ronnie will get his sensitivity back in his right foot. I am critical to the fact that the doctors started the operation in such a hurry. I would never had done this if Ronnie had been in my private clinic."

Free entrance for the journalists to the operating ward at the Italian hospital...

At home in Sweden, the newspapers are quick to write their first articles on Ronnie's crash and the first editions early in the morning of September 11 announce that the operation went well. During the evening Ronnies mother has said to the newspapers that maybe it was time to stop racing after an incident like this...

Read more:

The Final Grand Prix

The Accident

The Medical transport

The Operation

The Death notice

The Funeral

The Aftermath

The Cause of death