It is never easy getting older and realizing we are not the invincible, hale and strapping young people we once were. We might put on a few pounds, begin going gray, lose some hair, gain some wrinkles or even grow hair in new and exciting places, but all that vanity stuff becomes a lot less important when our health is at risk — and that’s a lot more likely to happen as we reach a certain age.
To continue our conversation about heart health for American Heart Month, I agreed to share a personal story about my own heart health and how a routine test led my doctors to discover a life-threatening heart malady that could have very easily led me to an early demise — and still might, though my chances are vastly improved.
I, and thousands of people in this country (and possibly you), suffer from an ascending aortic aneurysm (AAA) in my chest, or thoracic region, which means that my aorta, the largest artery in the human body, directly responsible for moving oxygenated blood away from the heart, has a bulge, expanding it to more than double its regular size. As that bulge grows bigger, the walls of the aorta get thinner and weaker, which will eventually lead it to dissect or, worse, rupture — neither of which are good.
A rupture is when all layers of the aorta’s wall tear, preventing blood from being pumped around the body. It’s commonly fatal, especially if you’re not close to a hospital with the right doctors. A dissection, also not good, is a tear in the aorta’s wall that allows blood to leak between the layers — it also requires attention right away, but it’s not as immediately deadly as a rupture. While you have a bit more time to get yourself sorted, it could quickly become a rupture.
In an odd bit of timing for me personally, fellow journalist Grant Wahl — a reporter for CBS Sports, Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated — died of a thoracic ascending aortic aneurysm (exactly what I have) that ruptured while he was covering the World Cup in Qatar on December 10, right around the time I agreed to schedule a surgery to repair my heart.
Wahl was only 49 years old (I’m 46). He was slim and appeared healthy, but to use a trite metaphor, he had no idea there was a ticking time bomb in his chest.
If a doctor had been able to identify Wahl’s AAA before it ruptured, he could have had it repaired and went on to live a fairly normal life. Which leads me to the point of all this: Do not ignore your health, be aware of risk factors and make sure to get regular checkups.
A ruptured or dissected aneurysm may lead doctors and EMTs to believe you’re having a heart attack and treat it as such, but you cannot survive long without swift surgical intervention. This is exactly how we lost beloved Three’s Company actor John Ritter at just 54 years old after his AAA dissected.
Without getting into all the details, his family reached a settlement in a wrongful death suit against the hospital where he died because doctors failed to identify the aneurysm until it was too late.
Luckily for me, I had suffered intermittent racing heartbeat and/or palpitations for many years, so my regular physician, Dr. Tara Barcia at Westhampton Primary Care Center, gave me a simple electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) and found some abnormal results.
It appeared, she said at the time last fall, that I might have had a “silent heart attack,” which is basically a heart attack that comes and goes without symptoms but can damage the heart and reduce life expectancy.
More tests followed, including two stress tests (which also produced anomalies), an ultrasound and, finally, a CT scan, and all led my cardiologist Dr. Dhaval Patel, who works with Stony Brook in Southampton and Center Moriches, to conclude that I had an aneurysm, not a silent heart attack. Had they not discovered this, my chances of a dissection or rupture would have continued to increase each year until one day, seemingly out of nowhere, I could have had a major cardiac event that I would be extremely lucky to survive.
I would not have known that it’s dangerous for me to ride on rollercoasters, to lift heavy weight or get into extremely stressful situations. I wouldn’t have been put on a beta blocker to keep me calm and my blood pressure low. And I’d surely still be chewing dozens of pieces of nicotine gum each week, even though smoking and other forms of nicotine are major risk factors for this condition — I gave it up within about a week of learning the consequences.
Unfortunately, most people with an aneurysm never have symptoms until it’s quite large, though I learned that the fatigue and shortness of breath I’ve had for some time, are actually signs that one might be affected. Back and chest pain, and a weak, scratchy voice are also symptoms.
Did you know that famous Southold visitor Albert Einstein also died from an aortic aneurysm? He was already 76 years old when it finally got him in 1955, but they added years to his life by wrapping his aneurysm in cellophane in 1948.
The technologies for repair have advanced greatly since his day, thank God.
I am scheduled for open heart surgery in Manhattan very soon, which will entail my surgeon, Dr. Leonard Girardi, cutting out the affected section of my aorta and replacing it with a synthetic tube graft, and possibly a new valve, which will take about five hours. Recovery after that can take at least a month.
It’s all pretty scary, but the success rate is over 90%, especially when done electively for someone of my relatively young age. And as much as I’m dreading the surgery and everything that comes after, it certainly beats the alternative.
Grant Wahl’s family would surely give up everything to be able to go back in time and have a chance at a surgery like this. So I’ll hold onto that thought and remember how lucky I am to have found the problem, and that we live in a time where cellophane isn’t the best solution available.
Visit the American Heart Association at heart.org to learn more about all aspects of your heart’s health.