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Surviving Aortic Dissection: A Second Chance At Life

Heart patient Ed Dunifin and his wife of 35 years, Karen.

I had not been to Indiana for 42 years. But last week I found myself on a commuter train in Michigan City, Indiana, taking my family on the South Shore Line to Chicago for the day. We were vacationing not far away on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The train was crowded so my group of six spread out where there were vacant seats. I found myself sitting with two men, father and grown son, on the way to a day at Wrigley Field and a Chicago Cubs baseball game. Before long the chit-chat turned to my work, and my explanation of Patient Power sparked the telling of an incredible medical story from the older of the two men, a story of good luck and great medical care that has given him a second life.

Ed Dunifin, now 54, is a production manager at a packaging company is Portage, Indiana. Six years ago he was playing softball with friends when he didn’t feel well. He sat down and continued to watch the game. He ate, he drank. But he still didn’t feel well. The early signs of a heart attack? A nurse at the game checked for a pulse. She couldn’t find one. Ed was turning gray.

As Ed, my seatmate, explained, it was surreal to him. As the game ended -– and yes, he waited! –- he was driven to the emergency room. They checked him over. Nothing. They checked some more. Nothing. Finally after hours they found the root of the problem deep in his chest. His aorta, the body’s major artery, was starting to dissect. If it blew open he could be dead in a flash. Very, very few people survive. And those are the ones where usually the dissection or an aneurysm that is about to burst are spotted coincidentally when doctors are looking for something else.

Ed was rushed by ambulance to a bigger hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where heart surgeon Dr. Alphonse DeLucia was prepped and ready to try to save Ed’s life. During a nine-hour surgery he wrapped Dacron mesh around the artery to prevent a break. Dr. DeLucia told Ed it was only the second time he’d performed the surgery because most all other patients had not survived long enough to make it to him.

The computer train rumbled on and Ed kept talking. He told me of his second life, how grateful he has been that his aorta held up until he could have surgery to correct the problem. He told me of the medicine he takes now to keep his blood thin and the Zoloft he takes to keep himself calm. No more softball. He misses it. But there have been other joys: Ed saw his son get married, his granddaughter turn 2, and he’s celebrated his 48th birthday, and his 49th…

It’s been six years. Five years since Ed recovered and felt back to his old self. He says he can feel the patch. And he can feel something else: an aneurysm growing and now bulging on the arch of his aorta. His new doctor is a super specialist heart surgeon, Dr. Himanshu Patel, at the University of Michigan. Ed carries his card in his wallet. He’s laminated it to protect it. Another surgery may be coming before long and Ed is hoping Dr. Patel can give him yet another lease on life. He knows it’s a gamble and that he’s been very, very lucky so far.

I told him I was grateful to him that he shared his story and I mentioned the programs we have produced on this topic. Ed said he’d be sure to check them out. His son, sitting across from us, smiled. You could tell the day with Dad at the ball park would be special. In Chicago I bid them farewell. But that was not the end of the story.

The next day I received the following email:

“Andrew, I am the aortic dissection survivor. Yesterday was my most interesting ride on the South Shore Train that I have ever had. I am sending this email to let you know what happens to me at the U of M. I will be going there 8/26.”

He goes on to include the letter of gratitude he wrote to Dr. DeLucia, the Kalamazoo surgeon for saving his life. And there was this final sentence that meant more to me than anything:

I have visited your web site. Very nice.”

Here’s wishing the very best for Ed. It’s making a difference for the Ed’s of the world and also telling their stories that makes it all worthwhile for me. It just goes to show that chatting with the person sitting next to you on a train can make for an unforgettable experience for you both.

Wishing you and your family the best of health!


(PHOTO: Heart patient Ed Dunifin and his wife, Karen, of 35 years)

*This blog post was originally published at Andrew's Blog*

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