Updated: Sep 18, 2021
Kevin Thomas Survivor Story My survivor story begins about two years before my actual aortic dissection. In November 2013 I began an intensive, doctor supervised weight loss program. The program was designed to put patients in ketosis by restricting carbohydrates and was done with all liquid meal replacement shakes.
At the beginning of this weight loss journey, I had topped out at 361 lbs. As expected, the pounds started coming off rapidly at the beginning, with weeks of 5 and even up to 11 pounds lost in one week. After a while the numbers decreased and were a little steadier for the remainder of the program. During those first few months, since it was winter, I was working out on an elliptical I had purchased for home. By spring I started walking outside and even joined the YMCA where I started working out with a trainer twice a week. Things were going very smoothly.
At some point in spring 2014 a friend of mine who was doing the same weight loss program talked me into joining a running group that raised money for our local humane society. Since I am an animal lover, this was a no brainer. I started off very slowly doing intervals of running and walking. The pounds kept coming off.
During this entire period, I was closely monitored by the doctor with frequent blood work, weekly weigh-ins, blood pressure checks, etc. And at some points my blood pressure would go extremely low because of loss of weight, so the doctor would adjust my medications, and sometimes my blood pressure would be high for periods of time. All this time I was still rapidly losing weight and working out and running like a wild man. The exercise was addictive, and running became a favorite activity, so much so that I started training for a half marathon.
By September 2014, I had lost over 140 lbs and was feeling the healthiest I had in 10 years. I was completely off all medications for blood pressure and was progressing nicely with my training. Fast forward to May 2015 when I ran a half marathon as part of the Coastal Delaware Running Festival: I was not fast, but I completed the run and felt great about my accomplishment. Little did I know what was lurking in the shadows. A week after the half marathon I attended the funeral of a dear friend and mentor of mine who ironically died from a Type A aortic dissection.
The night of August 31, 2015, was not unlike any other evening in that I watched tv after dinner and went to bed around 11 p.m. The difference came as I tried to lie down. I found it difficult to breathe, so I immediately got out of bed and walked around a bit. This routine continued for the next 30 minutes or so until finally and out of nowhere I had this feeling someone was stabbing me in the center of my back. This was coupled with chest and left arm pain, and I continued struggling to breathe.
Not knowing what it was or what to do I called friends who lived three doors down and asked one of them to take me to the emergency room at University of Maryland Shore Regional Medical Center at Easton, which happened to be two blocks away. Because of my symptoms, the triage nurse took me back immediately and thus began a battery of tests, including an EKG, blood work, a chest x-ray, more blood work, and finally the CT scan which showed what the ER doctor thought at the time was a Type A dissection. He conversed with a cardio thoracic surgeon in Baltimore, and they determined it was time to fly me to Baltimore for emergency surgery.
I was whisked away to the roof of the hospital where a helicopter was waiting to transport me to Baltimore. I have driven to Baltimore from Easton many times and it usually takes an hour to an hour and a half depending on traffic. I had never taken the trip by helicopter and hopefully will never do so again because the cost of the ride was more than $46,000. Looking out of the helicopter window as I was lying there being monitored by the medic, I could see the moon glistening off of the beautiful Chesapeake Bay which I am so fortunate to live near. This imagery gave me a bit of solace but at the same time I could not get out of my head the fact that my friend had died four months before while on a helicopter from Williamsburg to Richmond, Virginia, from the same thing I had just been diagnosed with.
Upon arrival at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, I was met by a team of nurses and the surgeon who had helped diagnose my dissection. In the elevator, he told me that after further review of the CT scan I did not have a Type A dissection but that I did have a Type B dissection and he did not believe it required emergency surgery. The surgeon decided that we would first try to manage things medically. I was first kept in the cardiac ICU and after a few days moved to the cardiac step-down unit. Nine days later, I was allowed to go home with new medications and new instructions on how my life was to move forward.
I returned to work after a week at home and then after two weeks returned to Baltimore for a follow-up CT scan and appointment with the surgeon. Upon reviewing the CT scan the surgeon informed me that my aorta had continued to dissect and now surgery was needed. My friend who had driven me to Baltimore and I walked the two blocks from the doctor’s office to the hospital where I was checked in and scheduled for surgery the next morning.
Because of some confusion in scheduling, I was awakened very early the next morning to find out that I was not going to be the second case as I had been told the night before but that I was now the first case and was whisked off to surgery without my family even having time to get to Baltimore from the Eastern Shore. From this point I don’t remember much except the nurses frantically trying to shave certain areas that needed to be shaved for the surgery. I also remember being wheeled into the operating room, being put on the operating table, and being asked by the anesthesiologist to sit up on the edge of the table and lean forward, as he was about to insert a needle into my spine. At this point I believe the stress and anxiety of the past few weeks bubbled up inside of me and I was not at all compliant. All I remember was a young man behind a mask wheeling a metal table over and placing a pillow on it. He told me to rest my head on the pillow and he began to stroke my hair to calm me. This was much needed after the names I was calling the anesthesiologist. Had it not been for that young man, I am not sure the anesthesiologist would have ever gotten the needle in.
After this point I remember nothing until waking up when they were taking the tube out of my throat. I guess this is where the anesthesiologist got his revenge, months later I found out that my left vocal fold was partially paralyzed either from the tube or from the part of the procedure where they did a left subclavian to left carotid bypass. I don’t believe we will ever know, but the thing we do know is it has ruined my singing career. Yes, I have a Bachelor of Arts in vocal performance and in addition to my teaching, I did a good amount of singing.
I was in the cardiac intensive care unit for about five days and then transferred to the stepdown unit for an additional five days before I was finally released. I came home to the Eastern Shore and stayed with my sister for about four weeks. After that time, I returned to my home and slowly went back to work. I wish I could say my story ended here but it didn’t. For the next nine months, I was in and out of the emergency room, had my gallbladder removed, and then had two more hospital stays in March and June of 2016, for over a week each to regulate my blood pressure.
Life has certainly changed since the night of August 31, 2015. I went through a very dark depression and anxiety. I started rapidly gaining the weight back that I had worked so hard to lose. I lost my job at the church I had devoted myself to for 10 years. My vocal fold issue, even after speech therapy, has not really improved much, and while I can sing, I can no longer do it at the professional level I had once done.
2018 brought on some good changes as I was hired to teach choir, band, and drama at a private school in Dover, Delaware, about an hour from my home in Easton, Maryland. This was not to last for long, as the school was experiencing a decline in enrollment, and by February 2020 it was decided that the school would close for good at the end of the school year. The weekend of March 13-15, my drama students were allowed to complete their performances of our musical “Honk! A Musical Tale of the Ugly Duckling.” We all know what happened next. COVID-19 and lockdown. I taught out the remainder of the school year virtually; imagine, if you will, trying to teach choir, band, and drama through Zoom. The school closed at the end of June, and during the pandemic, I decided that to survive I would need to build my side gig of teaching piano and voice lessons into a business. At first, I did this virtually and then by fall 2020, I had transformed my studio to be COVID compliant for the safety of my students and myself and began teaching in person again. My studio has grown, and I am making a living just teaching private lessons for now. How I have been able to build a business during a pandemic I will never understand, but I am grateful.
As I write this in September 2021, I am fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and still alive. I gained the weight back that I had lost in 2013-2014 and a bit extra thanks to COVID-19. In January 2021, I began a diet again and thus far have lost 64 lbs. I still have a long way to go, but it is a very good start, and I am happy.
I realize that I am telling you a story that is larger than my survival of my aortic dissection. I have given you a glimpse into my life during a very difficult time that just happened to include a major health issue. So here I am battered, bruised, and beaten but still alive. I take breath into my lungs each day, and I live. The road has been a bit bumpy, but I continue to live and do what I love, affecting young and old through my love and teaching of music. Parts of my story will probably seem familiar to many of you and not to others, but my hope is that I am so grateful for the doctors, surgeons, nurses, friends and family and even the anesthesiologist that I called every name in the book, for all the care, love and support I have received these past 6 years. I may not be where I thought I would be at the age of 52, but I AM ALIVE!