On August 29, 2023, I jumped into my rental car and headed out from Central Pennsylvania to a project site about 5 hours north in Upstate New York for a client meeting the following day.
As planned, a group of us including work colleagues and representatives from the client team met at the site the next morning at around 8:00 am to walk the property and set the stage for a late morning meeting at a local hotel conference room. The site walk went well and I felt fine, in fact I texted my Wife (Kim) around 9:30 AM to check in and let her know everything was good.
Shortly after 10:00 AM, we met back at the hotel as planned to go through a presentation that we had prepared for the next phase of this project. There were probably around 20 of us sitting around a “U” shaped table arrangement running through a PowerPoint presentation and discussing the various aspects of the project.
At some point during the early part of the presentation, I began to have some unusual tightness and subtle pain in my chest and generally started to feel uncomfortable. Up until that point I felt fine, certainly nothing unusual. There was no warning or any symptoms that I recall indicating there was any sort of issue. As time passed, the tightness in my chest got worse and my right leg began feeling numb. The numbness in my leg was not necessarily unusual owing to some lower back issues I previously had addressed through surgery about a year and a half prior to this event. My solution was to simply shift my position on the conference room chair, which ultimately did nothing to relieve the discomfort but at the time it made sense.
At that point, all kinds of thoughts were running through my head…was I having a heart attack or a stroke or was this some high-level bout of stress-induced anxiety associated with some project challenges? In any event, I continued to keep it all to myself in consideration of the meeting environment and not wanting to cause a fuss over something that I could not explain and assumed it would eventually pass.
This went on for maybe 20 to 30 minutes…truthfully, I do not recall how long I tolerated the discomfort, thinking I could fight through it somehow.
I finally decided I needed to stand up and stretch thinking it might help relieve my discomfort, but I quickly realized that my right leg was completely numb and was aching badly, and I could not feel my foot at all. The time was around 11:00 AM I think, and it was at that point that I leaned over to one of my colleagues (Rick) and indicated to him that something was seriously wrong and that I think I needed an ambulance. That obviously put a halt to the meeting. The ambulance arrived relatively quickly as I recall. My symptoms were generally consistent except the aching in my right leg was getting worse and becoming more and more uncomfortable.
I was initially taken to a local hospital (Unity Hospital) where they examined me. In addition to my other symptoms, they determined I had no pulse in my foot and quickly conducted a CT scan and determined (confirmed?) that I needed immediate open-heart surgery to repair/replace a dissecting ascending aortic aneurysm (as noted on my discharge papers). From what I understand, the dissection in my ascending aorta had impacted the valve and had extended down the descending aorta into my abdomen, which was why my right leg went numb.
With this determination, they quickly rerouted me to Rochester General Hospital where Dr. Cheeran and his Cardiothoracic surgery team were on standby awaiting my arrival. I was ushered right into surgery about 3:45 PM with a very streamlined registration process –Kim covered that part the next day. They set me up on a cardiopulmonary bypass and repaired the dissection in the ascending part of my aorta with a graft and completed a valve re-suspension.
Dr. Cheeran called Kim at around 6:45 PM that evening advising that surgery was completed and all went well but the next 24 hours would be critical. At that point, Kim and Scott were well on their way to Rochester with my Brother-in-Law driving. Kim arrived at the hospital around 9:00 PM and was able to visit me in ICU – I was well sedated and sleeping at that point with a breathing tube. Kim was told at that time the Doctor was concerned about my right leg and kidneys owing to the loss of blood flow, but this risk passed with time and further testing.
Because I was out of town, communication with Kim was a critical part of the process. It was all happening so fast at this point, I had to make time to ensure I did provide her with some level of communication and that someone would continue to keep her in the loop as the process continued. My first communication with Kim was a text message at 11:40 Am indicating that I was having an issue and going to the hospital to get it checked out.
At that time, I still did not know what was happening so the text did not provide much detail. My coworker Rick offered to reach out to Kim and keep her apprised of the situation. After the trip to Unity Hospital and with confirmation of the aortic dissection, I was able to quickly call Kim and tell her that I was being transferred to Rochester General for surgery that involved my heart.
I was still not 100% sure what was going on (or did not understand) but there was clearly a sense of urgency on the part of the ambulance crew that was transporting me. I had to cut my call with Kim short, but Rick followed up and provided her with some additional details.
Here I was in Rochester, NY, 5 hours from home and having to call and tell my Wife that I was undergoing emergency surgery that involved my heart. I did not appreciate or comprehend for obvious reasons at that time the level of anxiety that this caused Kim and the rest of my family. Given the travel distance, and Kim’s concerned state-of-mind, driving up by herself was not an option.
Fortunately, my Brother-in-Law Scott was able to quickly break away and drive Kim to Rochester. I can’t imagine the drive up, not knowing exactly what was going on or if I was still alive for that matter.
Thankfully the Doctor called during the mid-point of the trip and provided the news that surgery had gone well and that I was in recovery. The next logistical issue was Nola, our Bluetick Coonhound who needed to get to the kennel. Our Son-in-Law Michael thankfully took care of that for us. Our son Bret lives in Raleigh, NC and left immediately for Pennsylvania. He arrived at our home late on Wednesday and the next morning He and our daughter Marisa headed north to Rochester as well. Michael (Marisa’s Husband) stayed home to watch our two young Grandchildren!
Kim came in early the following morning to find me propped up in bed and awake. She insisted on taking a picture to forward to the kids, who were in route at that point to Rochester to let them know I was awake, alert and talking. It wasn’t one of my better pictures to say the least!
Marisa and Bret arrived that afternoon and were shocked to see I was up and sitting in a chair in ICU. I continued to progress well over the next several days. We were originally told that I would be in the hospital for about one week, but because I was progressing well, we were told I could go home early, which would have been great except for the fact that Kim and I did not have a vehicle to travel in at that point.
My Bother-in Law had traveled back home with Marisa two days earlier and Bret had left the day before. With the discharge news however, my Brother-in-Law Scott and Kim’s sister Kendall jumped back in their truck and headed back up to Rochester that day to take us back home to Central PA on Labor Day Monday.
In reflecting back and reliving this situation with Kim as we wrote this story, it helped me to appreciate how truly lucky I was to have survived the aortic dissection, but more importantly to me, how blessed I am to have such a loving and supporting family. I also fully appreciate the fact that my situation, in comparison to others we have read on the internet, was not too bad considering I had emergency surgery on Wednesday and was heading home in the back seat of my Brother-in-Law’s truck the following Monday.
I also cannot speak highly enough about the proactivity and genuine concern of everyone involved when this first occurred, Rick who stayed with me through much of the process leading into surgery and Brian who was there to meet Kim at the hospital and handle my hotel and rental car obligations so that Kim could focus on me.
The EMS and surgical teams also deserve a huge amount of thanks as they quickly evaluated my condition and developed an action plan that was immediately implemented to repair the Type A dissection.
As I sit here nearly 3-months from when this aortic dissection occurred, part of me still cannot believe this actually happened. At times, it feels more like a bad dream than a reality, but the large scar on my chest serves as consistent reminder that it was in fact real, and I am very fortunate and blessed to be able to tell this story!