Personal Stories: Stan Derr
On January 8, 2003 I had a total dissection of the Aorta,
both thoracic and abdominal. Until that time I did not even know that
such thing as an aortic dissection existed. The fact that I survived is
due to a series of circumstances and actions by key people, the most
important of which was the support and care of my dear wife Merrie Rose
from the time she first arrived in the emergency room through today.
Without her loving support my prognosis could be much different. At
the time of the dissection, I was a 59 year old president of a small
research company that held many patents using Infrared to uniquely
recognize and individual and do medical vital and other screening
without touching a person.
In this job, tension was very high as we were a startup and always
seeking funding or grants from the federal government or investors.
This pressure exacerbated my long term hypertension and caused the
dissection. My background included a 23 year Army career (including
two combat tours in Vietnam), 13 years of high pressure new business
development for a defense contractor and two years as president of the
research company. My medical history is mixed but included gunshot
wounds in Vietnam, type II diabetes and a serious weight control
One of the factors that I think allowed me to survive was a gastric
bypass surgery in March 1999 and follow on weight loss for a high of
400 lbs to 250 and the diabetes going into remission.
The story starts with me sitting and talking to my technical director
and preparing for a noon meeting with a potential investor. At about
10:00 it felt like someone hit me in the chest with a sledge hammer. I
suspected I was having something serious with my heart. I asked my
technical director (also my sister in law Fran) to please get me to the
hospital and called my doctors office. The doctor's office encouraged me
to call 911 and go by ambulance.
I really didn't want to do that but all of a sudden I was not able to
stand or move either legs or right arm. At that time my budget analyst
(Pat) came into the room and took the phone and immediately called 911.
This was the first of a series of critical actions that led to my
Fairfax county EMT's arrived in less then 10 minutes and I was
transported to the emergency room of Fair Oaks hospital. My sister in
law followed the ambulance while my budget analyst called my wife at the
elementary school where she taught and picked her up and took her to the
hospital emergency room.
What happened next is what I have been told by
my wife Merrie Rose, Fran and Pat all who spent many long days with me.
I remember nothing from the time the EMT's arrived and I awoke 4 days
later in an ICU. At the emergency room, my wife Merrie Rose (she had
spent 20 years as an ER and OR nurse in NY) was insisting on me
receiving immediate attention. After vital being taken and being placed
on oxygen the ER doctor ordered a CT.
The CT showed a dissection starting at the aortic valve and extending
the length of the aorta to the abdomen. The doctor was amazed that my
vital signs were good all the time considering all the tearing occurring
inside my body. In addition both legs had no pulse and were turning
The ER doctor told my wife, Fran and Pat that I had suffered a
dissection and that they could not treat it at Fair Oaks and the
prognosis for survival was poor. She was encouraging them to consider
organ donation. Merrie Rose asked where there were surgeons that could
address the problem.
The Doctor said that Fairfax Hospital had the
capability but doubted that I could survive an ambulance ride of 50
minutes to get there. Merrie Rose brought up air evacuation and all
three ladies became very firm with the doctor that she order an air
evacuation which she eventually did. Merrie Rose said I asked the doctor
if I was dying and she told me I was.
The helicopter diverted from
another mission and arrived in only 10 minutes although the doctor told Merrie Rose that she didn't think I could survive the helicopter ride.
Even though the ER doctor was very negative, the fact that she quickly
diagnosed the dissection was my second key event of the day.
I was loaded in and transported to Fairfax hospital where I was very
lucky that a fantastic vascular surgeon (Dr. Albus) was waiting and had
been repairing aortic dissections for 14 years. I was taken immediately
to surgery and was on the operation room table by 2 PM or only 4 hours
from the onset of the dissection. The operation continued until about 11
PM when I was moved to ICU. Dr.
Albus told my wife and others that he
thought the operation went well but they were having trouble finding
good tissue to suture the Dacron implant to. The prognosis was guarded
and stayed that way for a number of days in the ICU. Dr. Albus and his
expertise was a key factor in my survival.
The surgeons fixed the ascending dissection but did nothing with the
abdominal dissection as I had been on the heart lung machine for almost
3 hours and the heart stopped for 35 minutes. When the operation started
they thought they would have to also amputate both legs but that did not
occur and I have total use of one and partial use of the other.
As any of those who have gone through this know that I was hooked to
many monitors and my wife said I had 24 IV, drains or sensors hooked to
me. Here was another series of key people for I was individually
monitored by a nurse 24 hrs a day and these were the most professional
people we encountered. After 8 days in the ICU I was stable enough to be
transferred to a cardiac ward. I was not able to walk as there was
serious neurological damage to the nerves in the right leg and right
hand. I was not permitted to lift anything or get out of bed. After a
week of getting better and being able to sit in a wheel chair a couple
times, physical therapy began.
From here to the end of my hospital stay things went down hill fast.
The nurses were not as qualified and they were trying to fill beds in
the sister hospital (Mount Vernon) that had a fast rehab program. I
questioned whether I was ready for such intensive physical therapy but
was told that the therapists would not push past what I can do. So I was
transferred via ambulance to Mount Vernon and within an hour of arrival
they had me on a mat doing exercises. I immediately threw an embolism
shortly after arrival there and was transferred to a cardiac ward to
Here my wife virtually took over my care as the nurses were contract
nurses and didn't even know where things were in the hospital. A series
of potentially catastrophic mistakes were avoided through my wife's
intervention. When I was being discharged the choice was to go to a
nursing home and rehab there or go home and rehab. My wife decided I
would be better off at home where she could care for me. So we had a
hospital bed delivered and put in the living room, rented a wheel chair
and other medical items and had a temporary ramp built to the front
My wife took 12 weeks of family leave from teaching and became my
caregiver. Thank God for her. What followed over the next 4-6 months was
physical therapy and occupational therapy at home, nurse visits, and
gradual improvement. First to a wheelchair and being able to take care
of my basic needs. To water physical therapy and well as many visits to
Dr. Albus, my family doctor, a neurologist and periodic imaging and
blood tests. My right leg improved to the point that after about 7
months I was able to leave the wheelchair with a total leg brace and
finally after about 1 year to be able to walk with a cane.
Currently, I am able to walk with a cane or in the house for short
distances with no cane. My right leg and fingers of right hand are still
partially paralyzed and it appears that this is as well as it will get.
I was very lucky to have no brain or spinal cord involvement and the
neurological damage was localized. Unlike many of you who are doing
exercises, my doctors have put the following restrictions on me for
life. No aerobics or weight lifting, no lifting of anything over 30 Lbs.
and never get my diastolic blood pressure over 80. I see a cardiologist
and neurologists every 4-6 months. My abdominal dissection is being
treated by medications and I take 11 medications daily. My cholesterol
is closely monitored and has been reduced to an unbelievable 110 total.
Blood tests are conducted every 4 months and I have had 4 CT since the
dissection. I will have a CT every year from now on if things stay the
So as you can see, I have been blessed by a continuing series of
events that have brought me to where I am today. I am sorry this story
is so long but as you all know there is much more to this then even
mentioned here. I am very upbeat and optimistic about my future and look
at the partial neurological problems to be minor vs. the alternative. I
hope this helps others and if any of you have questions please contact
me, I would be very happy to help.
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