My Miracle-Escaping an Aneurysm (Don't ignore the little red flag)
My surgeon, Dr Joseph Diliberto, sawed through my sternum and separated my ribcage. With my chest cavity open and my heart revealed, the surgical team cut away my lungs and all major arteries and veins from my heart. Technically; I was dead!
Okay, I think I have your attention, now I would like to pause here and start from the beginning; the beginning of a story about how fate decided to give me a second chance.
The Sleep Doctor
July 31st, 2009: I was in no hurry when I left the job site at noon. I was leaving early for a doctors appointment, but it was just a sleep disorder doctor; nothing serious.
This was actually my second appointment with the doctor; the first time I had been turned away because I had been there for a sleep apnea study and after an evaluation, he told me my problem was not sleep apnea, but rather, insomnia. To be quite honest, even though I knew I suffered from insomnia I really had no intention of going to a doctor for it. The only reason I eventually went was because some co-workers participated in the sleep study and said that if I went they would pay me and all treatment would be free. I was still skeptical, but the clinic actually called me and convinced me to make an appointment. I figured, what the hell! It was the hottest part of the year; I would take half a sick day and get paid for it. Why not?
The staff at the clinic did their usual tests and questions and then the sleep disorder doctor, Dr. Feldman, came in to see me. He went over the paperwork while we made small talk and then he too began to do some basic tests on me. When it came time to check my heart he put his stethoscope up to my chest and listened.
To this day I still remember, and will never forget, the look on his face as he listened to my heart. It was that slight look of concern that crossed his face that started the journey. He pulled the stethoscope away, took a step backward and scowled as if something were bothering him. Of course I was a little concerned by his response, but I had been told years earlier that I had a heart murmur, so I figured that must be what he was hearing.
He stepped forward again and held the stethoscope to my chest. He finally backed away, and still wearing the scowl on his face began to break the bad news to me. He explained that what he was hearing was a leaking heart valve and that it sounded very severe. He wrote down information for me to take with me and advised that I go see a doctor right away. He emphasized that I not let myself be put off with a future appointment, but that I see someone as soon as possible.
At one point, as Dr. Feldman was speaking to me, he paused and stared at me with a confused look. "Wait a second." he said. "Didn't you walk in here on your own?"
"Yes," I answered.
Still looking bewioldered he held his stethoscope to my chest a third time, listened, and then backed away again. "I don't understand; from what I am hearing, you should be so dizzy that you can hardly walk. Are you sure you are not feeling any dizziness or lightheaded?"
"No," I answered again. " I feel fine."
Even though my lack of symptoms seemed very unusual to Dr. Feldman he insisted that I go and see my doctor. He convinced me that my condition was of such a serious nature that it had to be addressed right away, and in doing so he saved my life.
Needless to say, the forty minute drive from Dr. Feldmans office to my house was one of the longest of my life. I had started the day thinking I was going to have an easy afternoon with the possibility of making a few extra bucks, to trying to come to terms with the fact that a doctor had just told me that I had a severe heart problem. What was going to happen to me: how was I going to tell my wife, my daughters, my mom?
After arriving home and breaking the news to my wife, Brandie, I was able to get in touch with my primary doctor and she agreed to see me first thing in the morning. After seeing my doctor, she sent me to a cardiologist who confirmed what Dr. Feldman had told me. The cardiologist was just as perplexed as Dr. Feldman about the absence of what he felt should have been obvious symptoms. The cardiologist scheduled me for an echocardiogram to be performed the following day. He told me that after the scan that I would probably be hearing from them in about three weeks.
By the morning of the scan a couple of days had passed since first discovering the problem, and during that time I received a lot of encouraging feedback from family and friends. I was finally starting to accept that I had something going on with my ticker, but by now I was thinking that fixing the problem would be some minor procedure. I had even begun to feel a little guilty about making a fuss over it. I was beginning to think it was no big deal and that the guys at work would tease me for being a wimp.
The following day I went for my echocardiogram, and after the scan I waited in the lobby for further instructions. A doctor came out and told me that they needed to study the scan a little further but that I would be hearing from them by the next day. I assumed that he was not on the same page as my cardiologist, so I told the doctor that my cardiologist said I would be hearing from them in three weeks.
This was when the second blow hit me, letting me know that this was indeed a serious problem. The doctor was direct with me and said that my condition seemed very serious, and he even advised that if I felt even the slightest of pains that I was to go to an emergency room immediately.
Once again I went home deflated. I could discern by the doctors tone and the fact that this was receiving immediate attention that I was dealing with something that might be more that just, 'a simple procedure.'
The following day I went to work. I had been off for three days going through doctor visits and examinations and I couldn't take it anymore. As soon as I got to work the guys started encouraging me again, and one fellow employee related a personal story about a family member who had a problem like mine and all he had to do was get a stint inserted in his heart. Again, I was starting to feel better and was almost wishing that I had not said anything about it to the guys.
At about 9:00am I was in the break-room with my foreman having a friendly chat and starting to feel pretty good about things. And then my phone rang.
I answered the phone and it was my cardiologist. He began to tell me that they had discovered that I had what was called: a distended aortic artery, and that it was so severe that it was at the point of rupturing; it was the onset of an aneurysm. He told me that he had scheduled a surgery team and that I needed to go to the emergency room immediately.
Reality hit me like a ton of bricks. Just minutes after talking with the doctor my daughter Beth called me, and when I started telling her what was happening, I finally broke down. I called my wife, Brandie, breaking the news to her, and told her to meet me at the emergency room. I have to say that Brandie turned out to be a rock for me during that traumatic time. I know the situation was extremely tough on her, but she held everything together and was by my side through the entire ordeal. I can't imagine going through the experience without her there to hold me up.
When I arrived at the hospital, they were waiting for me. They took me right in and began running every kind of test imaginable. Because of the unusual circumstances of not having the symptoms that would normally accompany my condition, there were several surgeons who came in to examine and question me. They actually brought folding chairs and sat them around my bed. At one point they brought a group of interns in and had them listen to my heart.
That little voice in your head
During the intense questioning there was an instance involving the memory of a slight pain in my chest that I recalled and shared with them. It did not seem to be too significant at the present, but the memory was a wake-up call for me and one that I wanted to share with the readers of this story.
It was true that I was not suffering any of the symptoms that normally accompanied my condition, but I recalled that on a couple of occasions over the prior few months that I had experienced some slight discomfort in my chest. The most recent had been about three months earlier, and I remember taking special notice because that time seemed a little more painful than any time before. Even though I was far from what I considered; old, I was forty-seven and knew that I should take seriously any pain that I felt in my chest. I remember telling myself that I was approaching fifty, and had always heard that fifty was the age when you should have a full check-up. And this is where I ignored that little voice in my head that was screaming, "Danger!" My instincts were waving a red flag, and if not for fate stepping in, my failure to act on it would have killed me.
I understand these aches and pains are hard to acknowledge as we get older, because they just seem to come with so much more frequency and severity as we age. But this wasn't just an ache; it was my instinct telling me there was something seriously wrong, and I put it off. I have tried to relay this part of my experience to everyone I can, because I realize now that no matter how old you are, there may be a time when you will feel something, and a little voice in your head will say, "we've got a problem here!" I truly believe this is a natural survival instinct, and if you ignore it, or put it off, it will probably kill you. If I had not gone to that sleep doctor and had my problem discovered, I would have died within the week; that is a fact!
The doctors explained my final diagnosis; my mitral valve was leaking and had caused my aortic artery to swell to about four times its normal size. The technical term for the condition is called: distended aortic artery. The artery was in the process of beginning to rupture and when this happens, it is a full blown aneurysm. The doctors told me that based on what they could see from their tests that my artery would have ruptured within a week; two at the most. They explained that if my artery had ruptured and I had not been at the hospital that I would have died within a couple of minutes.
I'm sure you have heard the term; deer in the headlights. Well, that was me. in a way, I think it was a blessing that it all happened so fast. I didn't have a lot of time to think about the 'why's' and 'wherefores' of my situation. It was happening whether I liked it or not. It was literally; life or death.
Heartless- The Bypass Experience
And so, back to the beginning of my story. I was taken in for open heart surgery and learned the true meaning of; bypass surgery. Regardless of what kind of work you are having done on your heart, if it requires the beating of your heart to be stopped, you must be put on bypass. The simplest way I can describe this is to say that they cut your lungs, arteries, and veins, away from your heart and hook them to a machine that pumps your blood and breaths for you. In my case, after cutting my heart in the clear they then had to wait for it to quit beating and then they put it on ice. When my heart was no longer moving, they removed my bad valve and artery and replaced them with titanium steel implants. When this was completed they stopped the bypass, (technically I was dead a second time), so that they could reattach my heart. With that accomplished, they then had to restart my heart. The entire process took just under six hours. I could get into the entire recovery process, but I will spare you those details. Let me just say; the first couple of days were hell!
When I was finally cognizant enough to understand, Dr. Dileberto talked with Brandie and I, and showed us photographs of my heart. They had been wrong about me surviving a couple of weeks had the problem not been discovered; the artery had already begun to rupture. I would have died within hours had I not gone in for surgery.
The lack of what they considered; normal symptoms, has been constantly discussed, and Dr. Diliberto has since spoken at seminars where I am told that he refers to my case and that of the late actor, John Ritter. The only explanation that they can come up with is that I was considerably young, and that I was in very good shape.
That's right; I was in great shape, and it damn near killed me. Obviously, I have battled with that idea for the last few years. In many ways it doesn't seem fair, but what has happened, has happened, and I am still alive! I know it is an old cliche, but boy, talk about gaining a new perspective on life.
My dear Hubbers, although I could go on forever about this journey, I know that what I have written is lengthy, so I am going to wrap this up by reminding everyone of the 'red flag' experience I encountered. I am not implying that you live in a state of paranoia, but please take my advice; if you do sense one of those little alarms going off inside you, do not ignore it. Take it very serious. We were born with that instinct for a reason.
I knew that something was wrong and I put it off. Call it what you will: destiny, fate, a miracle, my heart was beginning to rupture and I did not know it. If I had not gone to the sleep doctor on that day, I would not be here now. That is a fact!
But I am here, and I am alive. I have an eleven inch scar running down my chest, and the metal valve in my heart sounds like a loud clock ticking when I am in a quiet room. I was given more time; and that internal clicking will always remind me of that.
As of 2006, the survival rate for an aortic aneurysm is just over 4 for every 100,000!