Imagine you’re outside on an April morning, watching workers fumigate
a beehive. Suddenly you get a “brain freeze” as if you’ve
taken a big gulp of an icy drink. But this brain freeze extends down into
your jaw, then into your chest.
It’s hard to breathe. You’re panting like a dog. Have you been poisoned?
After 10 minutes, you know it’s time to go to the emergency room.
You’re seen immediately—X-ray, CT scan. The ER physician calls
in a surgeon. He says there is a 50% chance you will die in the next 24
hours unless you get into an operating room immediately.
It’s a nightmare scenario, but it happens. It happened to Ron Emry
last year. Emry had not been poisoned—he had an aortic dissection,
and he was almost certainly going to die. But Emry and his wife made it
to Torrance Memorial Medical Center, he was able to have surgery immediately,
and today he’s alive to tell the tale.
The aorta is the body’s largest artery, carrying oxygenated blood
from the heart throughout the body. The walls of the aorta are made up
of three layers. An aortic dissection occurs when a tear in the wall’s
inner layer allows blood to flow between the layers, separating them.
“It’s a very life-threatening condition,” says cardiac surgeon
Jack Sun, MD, MS, FRCSC. Dr. Sun was on call when Emry came into the Torrance Memorial Lundquist
Emergency Department. Emry’s symptoms—most significantly the
quick onset of severe chest pain—suggested one of three serious
conditions: heart attack, pulmonary embolism or aortic dissection. The
ER physician ordered a CT scan, which ruled out a pulmonary embolism (blockage
of the pulmonary artery) but suggested an aortic dissection.
About half of aortic dissection victims die before ever reaching a hospital.
Just by getting to Torrance Memorial, Emry was beating the odds. The ER
staff ’s quick action helped immeasurably. Aortic dissection can
be misdiagnosed, and even for victims who reach a hospital, 50% die within
24 hours if nothing is done. Dr. Sun was summoned immediately, and even
before confirming a diagnosis of aortic dissection, he’d called
to assemble the operating team and prep the operating room. Every minute
counted. But when Dr. Sun told him he needed emergency surgery, Emry knew
he’d make it.
“I knew that things were going to work out for me,” he recalls.
“Everything had fallen into place.” His wife Phyllis says
she dropped everything to rush him to the emergency room. [Note: always
call 911.] As soon as Emry walked in, everyone in the reception area parted
to let him through. He was in surgery within an hour. The surgery lasted
10 hours, not unusual, says Dr. Sun. “You have to cool the patient’s
body temperature, stop the circulation entirely, cut out the damaged aortic
tissue, put the remaining layers back together,” he explains, “and
replace part of the aorta with an artificial tube graft.” Much of
the time is spent on the repair, then drying up the operative field. Postoperative
recovery is serious, but “he couldn’t have gotten better treatment,”
“All of the hospital staff were wonderful,” agrees Emry. With
their care, he was able to leave the hospital in just five days. Emry’s
strong constitution helped—now in his 70s, the retired Army officer
still exercises daily—and advances in surgical techniques and in
critical care treatment over the past decade have increased success rates,
says Dr. Sun. Improvements in the prompt and accurate diagnosis of aortic
dissection are perhaps even more important. And the condition gained public
and medical attention in 2003, when actor John Ritter’s life was
tragically cut short by aortic dissection. Still, aortic dissections and
aortic aneurysms, a related condition, are responsible for more than 15,000
deaths in America each year, according to the John Ritter Foundation for
“If this article can get just one person, when they’re having
the feelings Ron had, to think, ‘Oh, maybe this is what’s
happening,’ that’ll be worth it,” says Phyllis.
Still recovering from his surgery—he says he’s back up to 80%
or 90% in his golf game—Ron Emry just celebrated what he calls his
1-year “rebirthday.” “I’m so thankful for everything
they did,” he says. “Something like this gives you a whole
new perspective. I’ve been given a second chance on life.”