Updated: May 7, 2022
Hello fellow survivors!
I am Tammy Warner and my story began 18 months ago when I survived a
Type A aortic dissection. I had always led an active and health conscience lifestyle. I was blindsided by two health crises in a row. Four months prior to my aortic dissection I had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer. I was immersed in the world of oncology and was learning new terminology, making treatment decisions, enduring endless tests, and working through the emotions of battling cancer. On February 25, 2018 I was recovering from the mastectomy surgery and was in the 12th week of chemotherapy when I experienced a second life altering event and my world crashed around me. It was a Monday and I was eating breakfast before going to the oncology center for chemo. I thought I had a blackberry stuck in my throat because I had a sudden pain in my chest right below my collarbone. My daughters were in another room and I called out for them to come help me. Before they could reach me, I had lost the feeling in the back of my legs. An ambulance was called, and I was transported to our local emergency department. After being evaluated the physician diagnosed me with esophageal spasms. I requested an echocardiogram because I knew my oncologist was routinely scheduling one every 3 months due to possible heart damage from chemo. The physician explained that all the bloodwork and his examination showed no signs of any cardiac concerns. Emergency Dept protocol did not warrant an echocardiogram. I was provided a cocktail of medications to drink to treat the esophageal spasms and discharged. The emergency department physician consulted with my oncologist by phone and I was cleared to still have my scheduled chemo treatment that day. The next day I attended my usual 90-minute yoga session. I spent the rest of the week in bed. My back hurt, I was weak, nauseous, felt short of breath and I had no appetite. Every doctor we consulted with for the next 8 days reminded us that I was in my 12th week of chemotherapy and my symptoms were to be expected.
Eight days after the initial chest pain I went for a scheduled routine echocardiogram. Within minutes of the sonographer scanning my chest she paged a cardiologist and I was immediately placed in a wheelchair and quickly transported to the emergency room for a CT scan. The CT scan revealed the Type A aortic dissection. My dissection was from the ascending aortic artery, upward into one carotidal artery, through the center of my body and down both legs. I was in disbelief.
The mind protects the body and mine did exactly that! From the moment I understood the urgency and the severity of my condition I blocked everything out. My family and some close friends appeared in the room. I remember the atmosphere in the emergency room being joyful and even celebratory. I remember laughter and bantering back and forth with the nurses and doctors. My memory is that of a party atmosphere. These were obviously not the emotions my family experienced or displayed. My mind could not process another trauma when I was still in the middle of working through the mental and physical trauma of breast cancer. Months later I went to a therapist and I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. On the day of my diagnosis I entered a dissociative state of mind to protect myself. It was my only coping mechanism and it worked beautifully. I do not remember any fear. I do not remember crying. I have no memory of speaking to the doctors or asking any questions. I do not remember the emotions of my family members. I do remember a nun spending a long time with me and praying with me. I remember her asking if I wanted to receive the sacrament of last rites, but I do not remember my answer and I do not remember receiving the sacrament. I remember seeing my family in the hallway as I was wheeled into surgery. They have since described their fear for my life as I was wheeled into surgery, but I have a very distorted memory of that time.
I woke from surgery the next day and immediately gestured that I wanted the breathing tube to be removed. I was sedated and when I woke the next time I was seated in a chair in the ICU. I was soon transferred to the step-down unit. My memory during that time is very vague except for the intense pain when the chest tubes were removed. It was during this time that I also learned I would not be able to continue chemotherapy. The chemotherapy that I was previously told would save my life is no longer an option. I was discharged 5 days after surgery. The cause of my aortic dissection is not known. I do not have hypertension. I do not use drugs or drink energy drinks. I do not have a family history of aortic disease.
The most intense part of recovery began at home. I immersed myself in daily physical therapy for three months. I worked with every fiber of my being to regain any strength and endurance possible. Physically I was getting stronger but mentally and emotionally I was a disaster. I secretly spend every second in fear of dying in front of my family. I begged for the life I had prior to cancer and aortic dissection. I battled daily waves of grief for the life I had known.
Eighteen months later I am still learning to accept the new version of me. I have learned to give myself grace during the hard moments and celebrate all the good in my life. My daily hurdles are mainly fatigue, “pumphead”, and PTSD. The medication keeps my blood pressure and heart rate exceptionally low which causes fatigue with just routine activities. Open heart surgery often results in “pumphead” which in my case left me with short term memory loss. I must check the accuracy of any task I complete because I often make mistakes that I never made before. Word retrieval can be difficult. I must write everything down or I do not remember things. PTSD results in nightmares, irrational fears, heightened anxiety, and insomnia. I also feel so much guilt for the trauma my family has endured because of my health crisis.
I could not tell my survival story without acknowledging the role my family and friends have played in my life for the past 18 months. I learned amazingly fast that it was essential to surround myself with positive people. The doctors repaired my dissection, but my family and friend put my life back together. Each person contributed to a piece of the puzzle. My amazing husband found the right balance between pushing me when I need to work harder and holding me close and whispering words of encouragement when I need a soft place to land. He has truly been my lifeline. My children and four grandchildren give me the will to fight every single day to continue to be their mother and Nonna. My sister has been my trusted confidant and my brother-in-law keeps my spirits up. My mother has been my constant companion, chauffer, secretary, and biggest cheerleader. My friends have rallied around me and each has taken on a role to help push me forward. Sometimes they just held my held and sat with me.
I have always believed each person is responsible for their own happiness. Experiencing an aortic dissection has made that even more clear to me. I do not know why I survived but I force myself every day to find joy in surviving rather than asking why it happened. I am learning to live in the moment rather than fear dying any minute. I found Aortic Hope when I was trying to understand what happened to me and how to create a new normal. I wanted to know what other survivors experienced. Aortic Hope has truly provided the hope I was searching for during my recovery.