Chef Philippe Caupain
Chef Philippe Caupain, whose Belgian waffle restaurant is a hit in downtown Orange, was in organ failure and on a respirator when he was transferred to UC Irvine Medical Center, where critical care experts in the surgical intensive care unit restored his health. Paul R. Kennedy

Philippe Caupain puts the Belgian in Belgian waffle. The Brussels native is the seasoned chef behind the crisp, yeasty waffles that have been selling like hotcakes since his restaurant, Bruxie, opened in Old Towne Orange in November 2010.

It was a sweet finish to an otherwise dire year. Just five months earlier, the La Quinta resident was unconscious and near death when he was rushed 110 miles by critical care transport from a Coachella Valley hospital to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.

“They saved my life at UC Irvine,” says Caupain, 57, who is now fully recovered.

In all, he was on a ventilator and comatose – heavily sedated on painkillers and other medications – for nearly nine weeks. He spent a month in UC Irvine Douglas Hospital’s intensive care unit under the constant watch of specially trained critical care doctors and nurses before improving enough to finish his recovery at a rehabilitation facility.

Before his medical crisis, Caupain had been in good health and had worked for 18 years as the executive chef at a Rancho Mirage country club. In June 2009, he had elective surgery at a desert hospital for a ventral hernia in his upper abdomen, followed by a second minimally invasive hernia repair there on June 2, 2010.

Caupain returned to the hospital a few days later, in pain and having trouble breathing. “Just before they inserted a tube,” he recalls, “I said to my wife in French, ‘This is not good. I have a bad feeling about this.’” That’s the last thing Caupain remembers.

He had developed sepsis, an infection that overwhelms the body’s ability to maintain basic functions. Synthetic mesh used in the hernia repair – which remains in the body to hold tissues together – had become infected due to a bowel injury. For more than a week, doctors at the desert hospital tried in vain to control Caupain’s many complications.

When community hospitals have patients in need of a higher level of care, they often turn to a university-affiliated medical center for specialized expertise. At UC Irvine Healthcare’s surgical intensive care unit, there is at least one trained critical care doctor on duty at all times and many more on call, in addition to round-the-clock nursing care.

When Caupain arrived, trauma and critical care surgeon Dr. Cristobal Barrios and the SICU team immediately set to work combating the sepsis. Over the next month, they carefully drained his abscessed abdomen and removed pieces of the problematic mesh bit by bit through Caupain’s open hernia incision, all the while providing respiratory support, intravenous feedings, painkillers, antibiotics, other medications and continual monitoring.

Edith Caupain remembers how reassured she was that Philippe was getting the best possible care. The doctors and nurses gave her husband nonstop attention, had a plan for every possible complication and kept her fully informed at all times. “They talked to me constantly; they answered all my questions,” she says. “You have no idea what a difference that makes. I had confidence that he was in exactly the right place.”

Five weeks later, Caupain – still unconscious – was well enough to be transferred to a subacute care rehabilitation facility, where he was weaned off the breathing apparatus. He woke up in early August 2010, thinking it was still June. He could not talk and had lost 40 pounds. Caupain also suffered another blow: While he had been battling for his life, the country club at which he worked had replaced him. Though worried about the uncertainty of his future, he was determined to first regain his health.

Coincidentally, while Caupain was ill and jobless, his business partners were hatching a plan to open Bruxie. The new venture – offering a Belgian-American mashup of Caupain’s waffles and gourmet sandwich fillings – provided a positive outlet for Caupain.

He recovered his strength quickly and was on hand for Bruxie’s November opening. On June 17, 2011, Caupain underwent one more surgery – to finally repair the hernia that had been the starting point for his near-death journey. This time, Barrios used a safer biomesh, made from animal tissue.

Today, Caupain is healthy and back to hiking in the desert – when he’s not establishing new restaurants. There is a Bruxie in Brea now, and a third is scheduled to debut Tuesday, May 22, in Rancho Santa Margarita. Several months ago, Caupain and his wife visited UC Irvine’s SICU to thank the nurses and doctors, even though he had no memory of his stay or the hospital staff.

Suddenly, Caupain heard something recognizable that immediately brought a tear to the usually reserved chef’s eye. He turned to meet one of the nurses who had cared for him; her voice had reached him, even when he was unconscious.

“Then they were both crying,” Edith says.