Personal Stories: Mike Anderson

My name is Mike -- I'm 25 years old and a student at the University of Minnesota. I started my college career two years late, so I was planning to graduate in December 2007.

April 4, 2007 was the day that changed my life forever. It started just like any other day -- attend the lectures, laboratories and then come home and do

homework all night long. This time of year can get very stressful because midterms and project due dates often overlap as finals are just around the corner. I  was definitely feeling the pressure and I had scheduled my time in such a way that if everything went as planned, I would have just enough time to complete everything before the deadlines.

It was about 10:30pm, while I was working at my computer at home, when I felt this sudden pain in my lower jaw. My entire attention was taken from the project I had been working on and was now focused on the pain. I remember thinking to myself, "Where did this pain come from? I've never had this happen before. It's not something that is caused from something external (like someone socking me in the jaw) but something more internal" I couldn't put my finger on what the cause was. I wasn't aware of being allergic to anything, but for some reason I was starting to think that I had eaten something that was negatively reacting with me.

The next thought I had was, "Why do these things always come up when I can least afford the time? There is no way I'm going to be able to get anything done with this intense pain so I think I'll go lie down for a couple of hours and hopefully then I'll feel better and be able to work on the project after midnight."

As I got up from my computer, I had another thought: "I should grab my cell phone in case I need to call 9-11". At the time I didn't think anything about this particular thought (probably because my jaw hurt so bad!) but looking back on it I find it very interesting because its not something I would normally think to do. I mean, I've never called 9-11 in my life, let alone for a trivial jaw ache.

So as I laid in bed, I decided I would give my parents a call to find out if either of them had ever experienced this mysterious jaw pain and what the remedy was. Of course my luck would be that they were out of town so I wasn't able to reach them on their home phone, so I tried my Dad's office cell phone (which the chances of being on at 10:30pm were practically zilch) but miracles of all miracles - it was on! I informed them of how I was feeling and asked if they had every felt those symptoms before. Neither of them had and they thought that I was just reacting to the stress of the semester.

We continued talking for a few minutes when a new pain developed in my lower back -- just above the hips but in the middle of the back was the greatest concentration of pain -- then the pain felt as if it were propagating upwards from that location towards my

shoulder blades where it would move to a region behind my shoulder blades. The pain that I had initially felt in my lower jaw felt as if it were moving upward into my ears. I found it difficult to breathe and was feeling some pain in my abdomen. Now I was scared -- something was definitely not right and I needed to get it checked out now! I told my parents I was going to call for an ambulance and that I would talk to them later.

Within just a few minutes of calling 9-11, there were four EMS technicians in my bedroom checking me out. (This is one of those times I was grateful to be living in downtown Minneapolis instead of out somewhere out in the country.) One thing I found bizarre was that as soon as the EMS guys showed up, I felt great -- relatively back to normal. I didn't have any pain in my jaw, ears, back, chest, I could breathe...I was thinking the EMS crew was going to think I had been pranking them. After a few minutes of checking me out, they said, "Let's go!" and motioned for me to come with them. I got up, threw on my jacket and walked out to the ambulance with them.

Inside the ambulance they continued to gather information about me and did some other checks (I don't really remember what they did) The last thing I remember them asking me was which hospital I wanted to go to and I responded "The University Hospital" I don't remember anything after this point, but apparently I was conscious and coherent when I arrived at the hospital because I was able to complete the required paperwork, spoke with the nurses and doctors and even talked to my parents on the phone a few times (hopefully I didn't tell any good secrets lol)

They ran some tests on me (probably CT Scan) and determined that I had a dissected aorta "from the top down" and would need emergency heart surgery if I expected to stay alive. I can't imagine the shock that I must have felt when they told me this! First of all, I never would have guessed that the symptoms I had felt would have had anything to do with my heart and secondly, I have never had any heart related problems before (aside from being told I had a heart murmur when I was 12 -- but the doctors determined it was fine and shouldn't prevent me from doing anything I normally would) Part of the reason I probably don't remember any of this is due to the shock of being told it -- surgery has always been something that sounded really scary to me and I never wanted to experience it!

I had a wonderful, concerned surgeon, Dr. Ken Liao -- I'm so thankful to him and his team of doctors that worked on me. They discovered quite a few problems once they opened me up -- My aortic valve was replaced, some arteries going up into my neck from the heart needed to be repaired and I also had a Dacron graft added to repair some problems in the heart. I was in surgery for 13 hours and required 120 units of blood. At one point during the surgery they needed to shut off the blood from my brain temporarily, but they thankfully managed to do this in short enough intervals that I didn't experience any negative side effects from it.

My poor parents -- after they found out I would be undergoing surgery, they left around 1:30am to drive to Minneapolis. Of course by the time they arrived at 6:30am, I was already in surgery and so they would have to wait the entire day in the waiting room until they were able to see me. I'm sure that must have been stressful :After the surgery I was moved to intensive care for a few days -- I think the drugs used on me during the surgery were messing with my mind because it took me a couple days before I started coming around to normal.

I knew that I was at the hospital -- I remembered calling 9-11, but I didn't know why I was at the hospital. The entire adventure of being told about needing heart surgery, undergoing surgery, etc. was completely erased from my mind (as it still is). I didn't want to be at the hospital and just wanted to go home. (I guess I didn't notice all the tubes and monitors hooked up to me lol) Anyways after a few days, I was moved to the normal part of the hospital.

By this time I could carry on a conversation with my parents coherently and was "back in the real world". I'll always remember when they first told me that I was in the hospital because I had had a heart surgery. I didn't believe them! Why would I have a heart surgery? My heart is fine! Then they come bringing in this little stuffed pillow that the doctor gave them with drawings on it to indicate the work that had been done.

That's when it finally hit me -- they were serious. A feeling of gratitude and just plain happiness overtook me -- I was so thankful to have another chance at life and realized how close I had come to not being so fortunate. It's amazing how easy it is to take things for granted.

Most of the time I just spent talking to family and friends and watching TV. After having the surgery, I had some impairments -- I couldn't walk, couldn't move my arms, couldn't move my fingers and my vocal cords

were paralyzed so I was a whispering machine lol. The doctors determined that my inability to move my arms/hands/fingers was probably a result of being restrained during the 13 hour surgery -- they figured it was just temporary. Likewise, the ventilator had probably caused my vocal cord paralysis - again probably temporary.

The hospital staff began working with me after a few days -- walking with them (more like me holding on to them one on each side and trying to walk) to regain this ability. I was very shocked at how quickly I forgot how to walk -- I mean I was literally wondering how long it was going to take me before I felt comfortable doing it again. My surgeon was very caring and frequently checked on my status. He had other doctors come and check on my arms and hands to help assist me in recovery.

After a couple weeks I was moved to a rehabilitation hospital -- it focused mostly on occupational (doing things you would do in a job setting) therapy, physical therapy (building up endurance, muscles, etc) and speech therapy (basically testing to make sure you are cognitively all there) Each day I would spent about 3 hours cumulatively working with these therapists -- everyone was nice and it really didn't seem like a hospital so that was nice.

By the time I left this rehab hospital about 2 weeks later, I was able to move my fingers (to type on a computer), my wrists and arms were working much better and I could hobble down the hallway on my own : I spent the summer with my parents -- I continued in various therapy and cardiac rehab programs and they helped me get virtually back to normal. Now I can move my arms pretty much as well as I could before, my fingers work just fine. I still have some numbness in my hands and feet and am told this can last for a very long time -- but overall I'm grateful for how things have turned out.

I take 3 medicines -- 7.5mg of coumadin daily (to keep my blood from clotting on the artificial valve), 50 mg of Metoprolol twice daily (blood pressure reducer) and an aspirin. The use of coumadin requires that I have my blood checked periodically to ensure that it is not too thick or thin. You would think that taking a constant dosage of coumadin would keep a constant blood consistency, but there are foods that have an anti-effect on coumadin (foods containing Vitamin K).  What kid wouldn't die for his doctor to tell him to avoid eating broccoli ;) No, actually I can eat pretty much anything I want as long as I eat it consistently (so that I take the right dosage of coumadin to offset the Vitamin K)

So now I'm back in Minneapolis, continuing my last year of school. I feel pretty much back to normal, but still have to get the blood checked and see my cardiologist periodically. I'd like to thank everyone who has shared their stories about their aortic dissection - its nice to know that there are others who have gone through this before.

If you need to get a surgery for your aortic dissection, all I can say is you don't need to worry about feeling any pain. To this day, I have not felt any pain as a result of the surgery -- the only pain I felt was the night when I was having all those crazy symptoms. Also, I highly recommend the University of Minnesota - Fairview as a hospital if you need surgery. It is very renowned throughout America for its heart surgery abilities.

Overall this experience has left me with gratitude to God for allowing me to live and for all the doctors and nurses that were able to help save my life. Life is beautiful.



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