Personal Stories: Dennis Keating

Talk at Men’s Retreat


My name is Dennis Keating and I am extremely fortunate and delighted to be here today to write this story. I was 52 at the time of my dissection, January 28, 2007.


I was at a Men’s Retreat with about 30 fellow parishioners from two Catholic Churches in Evergreen Colorado.  It was held at a retreat center near Estes Park, Colorado, not far from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.  I had received the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) in the afternoon, and we had an adoration that night.  After the service was over we gathered in the lounge for some additional camaraderie.  I was just starting to have glass of wine with one of the men when I felt a tremendous pain in my chest. It must have shown, because he asked immediately if I was alright.  Understating things a bit, I said:  Not really. He asked if it was heartburn, but I told him I had heartburn in the past, and this was nothing like that at all.  It felt like an elephant had his front legs on a rolling pin, and starting at my sternum, rolled up to my neck.  Over and over again it came, every few seconds.  I felt light headed and my friend helped get me to the floor.


By this time others had come over to help.  EMS had been called and Ian had given me some of his nitro and aspirin thinking it was a heart attack.  My wife is an ER physician and had previously told me some of the symptoms of a heart attack. I did feel the intense chest pressure she had described.  But, while my right arm was tingly and my right leg was going numb, the left arm and leg were fine.  That being said, I knew I was in a dire medical emergency. The EMS team arrived, put me in the ambulance and carted me off to the Estes Park Medical Center. 


As I rode in the ambulance, I thought about where I was headed for critical medical care, accompanied by some great EMS staff, my Knights of Columbus Rosary, and God.


I always thought of Estes Park as a summertime RV stopover for Rocky Mountain National Park.  I had stopped there for dinner Friday night before the retreat and it was hard to find even a restaurant that was open.  What kind of care might I get there?  But God was looking out for me.  The doctor in the ER, Chris Daley, was superb.  My wife to this day is still amazed at how quickly he diagnosed and that Estes Park had the equipment to confirm the fact that I had an aortic dissection.  I couldn’t have been in better hands: Dr. Daley’s and most importantly, God’s.


As I later found out, the mortality rate increases by two percent for every hour of delay.  I would have been sent on a helicopter, but it was too foggy, so I had a 90 minute chauffeured ride to St Anthony’s Hospital in Denver.  That ride gave me a lot of time to think about my current situation, potential outcomes, and what that all meant.  On the ride, the pain had now moved into in my middle and lower back.  I also remember feeling terribly cold.  The nurses in the ER kept providing heated blankets (or maybe towels), and I vividly remember how great they felt.


My thoughts on that ride as best I can recall:


First of all, we had recently switched health plans.   I had no idea, other than a high deductible, what would be covered or we would have to partially pay.  Worse yet, during our financial difficulties, nearly all my life insurance had lapsed.  I was going into a 10-12 hour surgery, with a life threatening ailment, with no assurance that I could pay for any of this.  I have spent my entire working career in consulting, having to assess the facts and determine the likely outcomes using logic.  Human reasoning said that I was trying to row up a creek without a paddle.


But human reason doesn’t take into account the power of God.  In spite of all the bad outcomes that I had methodically assessed, the worst of them the most likely, God’s loving grace came down from above and gave me an inner peace that I can not explain.  I’m told I maintained a sense of humor throughout, joking with the ER docs as they got me ready for surgery, and had a positive spirit that my wife could not understand.  But that helped her a lot as well.  I asked the surgeon about the success rate of this kind of operation and he said about 30-40% die. I then asked him what his own success rate was, since he was the guy who held the knife for me.  He said his group had done 16 in the past two years, and only one patient did not make it.  I told him “I liked those odds much better:  Let’s roll”.  I said goodbye to my wife as they rolled me to the Operating Room, and told her don’t worry, I would not leave her and my daughter alone.  I didn’t know what the final outcome would be, but somehow I knew that even if I died I would be with them through God if He called me.


The surgeon, my wife and everyone else with the medical knowledge of my situation said that the positive, upbeat attitude that I had going into the surgery was a critical success factor.  It turned out that the dissection had gone from the beginning of the aorta, up the ascending aorta. It missed the carotid arteries.  If not, I would not be here today. It went over the arch and all the way down to my iliac, which I now understand is in my groin area.  I believe the survival rate for that severe a dissection is well under 50%.  It is truly miraculous from a medical perspective. 


Looking back, one thing I can come up with for my upbeat attitude is Reconciliation with the Lord. I had just received the sacrament of reconciliation earlier that day.  I had cleared my soul and reached peace with God.  I was in the best possible shape to move to the next world.  That is the reconciliation part. I remember the old catechism symbolism of the soul as a milk bottle, all white except for original sin at birth. As we commit sins, we get more and more dark spots of sin and it turns more gray than white. Then through reconciliation your soul is made pure white again.  That feeling of peace from reconciliation with God is how I was ready to meet the Lord if he was really calling me at this time.


But that doesn’t explain why I was at peace with how my family would survive if I died.  I had a wife who would have to live without her husband of 15 yrs, and with whom she’d together for 30 years.  I had a 10 yr old daughter who would have to live her life without her father.  It also doesn’t explain how I was at peace with the massive financial and emotional burdens it would place on my family if I lived.  Despite all that, I somehow knew that if God was calling me at this time, he had a reason and he would take care of my family.  And if he wasn’t calling me at this time, he was giving me the spiritual strength and the best medical care to survive.  I didn’t know what my outcome would be.  I just trusted that the Lord had a purpose for whatever was to come.  And I trusted that the Lord would take care of my family in whatever was to come.  And even though I had no idea how he would do this, I just trusted that he would. 


I did survive and left the hospital 11 days after surgery.  I recall how wondrous the everyday world was for me when I got out of the hospital.  With the zipper incision in my chest still tender, on the way home I had to sit in the middle back seat to avoid any chance of air bag deployment hitting my chest.  But that gave me one of the greatest sights of my life.  As we came over the ridge west of Denver, and saw the Continental Divide, I could not have imagined any earthly sight looking so beautiful.  I think I may have seen that view a thousand or more times, but in seeing them that day I saw them as great wonders of God’s earth.


It took a while to stabilize the medications.  The original doses would leave me light headed and woozy for about an hour.  Gradually we adjusted (downward thankfully) and the dizziness stopped.  I got back to work full time about two months after the surgery, and while I don’t have as much stamina as I did before, that is probably attributable to my not getting enough exercise to build it up.  I am working on that as we speak.

I don’t really feel or as far as I know exhibit any symptoms other than not as much energy, but I was still able to do some road biking last summer.


I do occasionally (one or two times a month) have two to three minute periods where my peripheral eyesight gets a little blurry, but during them I can still read and work on the computer.  Does anyone else have that?

I am also trying to get clarity on the type of exercise I can do.  I used to ski a lot before the AD but my cardiologist is dead set against it.  In fact his words were: “learn to love the couch”.  My wife and the surgeon disagree.  I am thinking of seeking out a new cardiologist and would appreciate anyone else’s feedback.  The last piece of feedback I’d like to hear about is thoughts on CT scan vs. MRI; the surgeon really would like to limit the amount of radiation given, particularly since they are looking for one every year.


Some background history

In 1992, my dad had an aortic aneurism that burst and he had emergency surgery.  At the age of 70, his chances were about one in three.  But he survived and, God Bless him, he is still alive and kicking at 85.  To the day my Mom died, she referred to it as “the Miracle”. 


When Dad heard what had happened to me, he was devastated. When I was able to speak to him by phone, he apologized for “giving me the bad genes to make this happen”.  I quickly responded, “That may be true, but you also gave me the genes and the Lord gave me the strength to survive it”. 


One unresolved question that I can only trust that God will let me in on is what am I to do now.  He gave me that sign last year, and then kept me on this earth for a purpose. I just haven’t been able to discover it.  Perhaps it is just to be the best person that I can be: father, husband, son, friend, parishioner… But based on last year’s experience, I believe He will show me what that purpose is.  And I pray that with His help, when I know what that purpose is, I will be able to fulfill it.

Contact Dennis
Phone: 206-550-7957

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