Personal Stories: Ron Abbitt

I am writing this for my father (he is a notoriously bad at spelling, and a dissected aorta has done nothing to improve that skill). In all seriousness, he is a walking miracle whose sense of humor carried him (and us) through the incredibly difficult adjustment to life and living after an aortic dissection.

On August 2, 2003, a Saturday, my father was up early, removing the baseboards in his home office so that he would be able to install an enormous desk he had just made. Always a do-it-yourselfer, this was just another task for him. Around 6:30 he felt the tear. He thought he was having a heart attack, or maybe that he had injured his back, or was possibly suffering a stroke. He tried to prepare for a trip to the hospital, but fell while walking into his living room. Lucky for all, he fell next to the phone. He called my mother because he doubted his ability to speak coherently to 911. My mother called 911, and was then rushed home by a kind customer. My husband and I started for the hospital around 7am.

When I arrived at the hospital, I saw my father in a hospital bed, sweating profusely. He received a shot of morphine, but it did not help the pain. As in Brian's story, we were incredibly fortunate that the emergency doctor in this small, small town hospital identified a problem with his aorta. A chest x-ray made him suspect an aneurysm. My father was then prepared for a flight to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee -- a top-ranked hospital.

Our drive to Nashville would take about 2 hours, so the emergency room staff suggested we gather some essentials and take our time: we would not be able to see him for hours anyway, so there was no need for us to hurry. Easy to say.

e were told to contact the ER on our way to Nashville. The first call told us that my father's condition was very serious -- maybe an aneurysm, maybe not. The second call told us that he had suffered an aortic dissection. We had never heard of that -- it was almost beyond comprehension.

When we finally arrived at the hospital, we found my father in the critical care unit in a medical coma. He was on a respirator and connected to two or three IV bags of medicine. His blood pressure could not be controlled.

My father would remain in this coma for over two weeks. During that time, my mother and I made the five daily trips to the critical care unit. We were escorted in the Quiet Rooms several times. The cardiologist, Dr. Dante Graves, told us the statistics involved in such cases. We were told that they would try to remove the respirator, and that when they did my father would probably die. We were told that he would "probably die" almost every day. If he lived, he would probably be paralyzed or in terrible pain. We would watch the levels of medicine drop, nearing the doses that would allow him to wake up and get off the respirator. Then we would go back for our scheduled visit only to find the levels of medicine back to heavy doses. The websites I visited in the waiting room only confirmed the severity of his situation: I can remember reading of one man who suffered so much after his dissection that he wished for death.

My father kept surviving every attempt to reduce the medicine and reliance on the respirator. During this time, my father developed a rash that was caused by Lasik. He also received a shunt so that medicine could be delivered more easily. This would cause problems later.

It seemed that our lives would be nothing more that those five visits a day, and that my hearty, healthy father would be reduced to nothing. Then came the day that we entered the unit to find the medicine at acceptable levels and my father moving in awkward shrugs and stretches. His eyes were barely open, showing only the whites. At that time I assumed that he was permanently damaged from the medicines, and that what we saw was all that was left.

On the next visit he had improved, opening unfocused eyes and moving more normally. By the next day he could almost speak. His first words were to ask for bread and a gallon of water.

Things progressed rapidly after that. A few days in step down and plans to take him home were being discussed. Then the developed an infection from the shunt. It seemed so unfair to come through so much only to be struck down by an infection caused by improper care of an IV. Lucky in all things, my father had a staph infection that would be treatable.

With all muscles atrophied, he was barely able to move. He spent another week or so in a rehab center, then home. It was a glorious day.

That fall was a slow time. My father struggled to regain his strength and an understanding of what had happened to him. A workaholic, he had to face the possibility of leaving his 42 year career as a procurement officer for the Defense Department. On the bright side, there was no paralysis and no pain, and he had survived.

In January, an MRI showed that he had a tumor in his kidney. Once again, luck was on his side as he had the "good" renal cancer that could be cured by removing his kidney. And he continued to heal.

Now, he is officially retired and doing quite well. He can do more than we ever expected, but not everything he could do before.

This site has been so helpful to my father -- dissected aortas are not common. Sharing stories is one way to feel like there is hope and you're not alone.

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