Personal Stories: Steve Frass


 

Dear Brian,
 
I just looked over your web-site, it is really nice. I, like you, am a survivor of an aortic dissection. It is nice to know there are other people like me out there. You have done what I have always wanted to do but, due to my lack of computer access ( I only have a computer at work ), I have never done. I am sending along a copy of my story that I just wrote a couple of weeks ago for the Aneurysm & AVM Support web-site that you have a link to already. You can post it if you would like but I think it  has enough exposure already on Bill's site. Thank you for your time and effort, your site is a wonderful resource for all AD survivors and their families. May God continue to bless and watch over you...
 
With Deep Appreciation,
Steve
 
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February 4, 2005
 
My name is Steve Frass. I am currently 49 years old. I had an ascending aortic dissection on April 5, 2001. Tomorrow is my 46-month anniversary. I have been a local TV news videographer and editor in Syracuse, New York for the past 26 years. Prior to my dissection, I was an avid bicyclist for 18 years ( approx. 4000 miles per year). I am told this probably saved my life because of my healthy state of overall fitness due to my cycling. I am currently in excellent health (at least all of my scans since 2001 say so). My resting pulse rate is 48 and my BP is 110/85. I am on zocor, warfarin, metoprolol and altace. I have been coming to this site for inspiration and guidance since November 2001. It has been almost four years since my dissection and I thought it was time to share my story with people who have been as blessed as me. Here is my story...
 
BEFORE
On April 1, 2001, I finished my indoor 20-mile ride on my trainer and proceeded to do my butterfly exercise with light dumbbells. I felt tightness across my chest. Not so much a pain but a dull ache. I thought I had strained a pectoral muscle. Apparently I am not too bright. I continued to have this dull ache several days. It did not impair my cycle training but I did not do the butterfly exercise until the fourth of April, the exercise did not change the ache...no more, no less. That night after going to bed, I lay awake wondering what the hell was going on. I had gone 24-miles on my trainer, done the butterflies and I seemed to be fine except for this ache across my chest. Then, the first pain went up my carotid in my neck. Now, I was nervous. I went downstairs and told my wife Laurie ...pretty much what I have written so far. She wanted to go to the emergency room right away. I talked her out of that and told her that I would call my Internist in the morning.
 
THE DAY
The morning of April 5th started early for me. I got up at 2:15 am and got to work at 3:00 am. I did my thing at work and called my doctor's office shortly after 9 am. After explaining my problem to him, he told me to come in at 11 am. My doctor is Paul S. Cohen and he is a wonderful man. Unlike many doctors, he listens to you. I left work a little early and got to Paul's office right at eleven. I did not even sit in the waiting room. A nurse did a EKG on me and Paul came in to look at the results. Nothing. No sign of any problem. Paul did another EKG himself. Nothing. No problem. A third EKG showed nothing. No problem.

Paul questioned me at length about the past several days and finally told me  that he did not like what I was telling him and he was sending me over to see a cardiologist at the Central New York Heart Center two blocks away. So far I am thinking...no big deal. Then Paul tells me that one of the girls in the office is going to drive me the two blocks! I think it was then that I actually thought: Is Paul crazy or am I'm just too dumb to be scared...

 

At the Central  New York Heart Center, I need to fill out new patient forms and then a cardiologist by the name of Daniel Fuhlihan spoke to me. He told me they were going to do a stress test with ultrasound. I walked into the room for the test and sat with my shirt off on an exam table. Dr. Fuhlihan stepped behind me with the ultrasound scanner, spoke to a few other people in the room and said, "It looks like he is dissecting, we can't do the stress test." At this point, I had no idea what he was talking about (the only dissecting I ever knew about was in 10th grade biology...cutting a frog open) and he did not explain, he just said follow me.

He took me down to an office and told me he wanted to get an MRI and this girl in this office would get me in somewhere...immediately. He also told me to make a follow-up appointment with him the next morning at 9am. I sat outside this girls office for about 20 minutes until she came out and told me to go to St. Joseph's Hospital and their MRI unit immediately...they were closing for the after noon but would wait for me. So as I leave the Central New York Heart Center, I am feeling pretty good about this thing...whatever it may be. I mean, I am walking the two blocks to my car and I have an appointment  see the cardiologist the next morning and he's going to tell me everything is fine after he checks out the results of the MRI...RIGHT?

 

I drive over to the hospital and park the vehicle about five blocks away at the bottom of a hill. I walk up the hill five blocks to the hospital. The MRI unit is on the second floor...of course, I walk up the stairs. ( Please remember, I am still in no real discomfort or pain.) As I enter the office and tell the girl who I am, she gives me an odd look but says nothing except fill out these new patient forms.  So while I wait about another 20 minutes, I fill out more forms.  I am taken down a short hallway and told to go in the MRI room. As I enter, two techs are standing talking and they both stop and look at me oddly and one says, "Are you the emergency MRI?" and I answer "I guess..." After I get into a hospital gown, I lay down on the MRI table and they send me in and pull me out and send me and pull me out.

Then a nurse comes over to inject dye into me so they can get a better look at whatever. From the moment the dye goes in, I get warmer and warmer. They slide me in and, suddenly I am soaked in sweat from head to toe, I am nauseous and I tell them I don't feel good. They slide me out and I hear the nurse say "call the Cart."  [Now I am really nervous.]  In less than a minute, the room is filled with about 30 people,,,probing, sticking needles and asking me what I have had to eat that day. I am transferred to a gurney and a doctor leans over me and tells me "We have to take you down the hall and do a little surgery", I responded "Like what?" and he said "We need to open up your chest and repair your aorta." and I said "I don't think so..." and he said, "If we don't, you will be dead in about two hours!" [Now I am really scared!]  and I said"Okay, let's go..." As they wheeled me down to surgery, I remember asking God to take care of my beautiful wife for me

It is strange that I do not remember asking Him to get me through the surgery, all I could think about was her and the fact that I couldn't kiss her good-bye. (She was driving home from work and did not have a cell phone then.) It was Thursday, April 5th at about 5pm when I went under the knife...

 
RECOVERY
On Monday, April 9th shortly before noon, I wake up. I feel like a truck ran over me, I cannot swallow. I can't move any part of my body without being in pain, I realize there is a tube down my throat. I try to speak but only make strange moans. I force my hand to my mouth thru the pain caused by the movement and pull the tube from my throat after several attempts. I can breath. I am alive. [Thank you, Lord, I am ALIVE!]  Seconds after I pull the tube from my throat, I hear a nurse say " He's awake, welcome back, Stephen." Thank you, it is really nice to be here...

 

My surgery had lasted almost five hours. My aorta had peeled apart like an onion and I am told the root and core had pretty much disintegrated. The surgeon, a wonderful man by the name of Ahmad Nazem, replaced my aortic valve with a Medtronic Aortic Valve and Collagen Conduit. He calls me 'miracle man'. I call him 'miracle worker'. Dr. Nazem reattached my shredded aorta pieces to the valve implant conduit and so far it has worked.

My wife Laurie tells me that the night after my surgery, I was in trouble and Dr. Nazem came and prayed for me most of the night. ( He was there just in case they had to open me up again.) Laurie also explained all the odd looks that I had received once I arrived at the hospital...no one there had ever seen an emergency aortic dissection patient WALK in! The MRI techs told her that usually that type of patient is on a gurney and either in a great deal of pain or unconscious. My lovely wife suffered through almost four days of my unconsciousness, I am sure that was much more difficult than me catching up on my sleep. It is a good thing I did though, once I awoke...my hell began.

 

A few hours after I am awake and with a healthy dose of morphine I am feeling pretty good, considering what I had just gone through the past few days. Fortified with Jell-O and orange juice, I try to stand. Big mistake, my legs don't work. [Now I am really scared...again.] Good thing there was a nurse on each side of me to catch me, I was told it was normal and that the muscles in my legs would recover shortly. The next morning my legs did support me with no problem. The entire four days in the hospital are a morphine blur now, I thought I felt really good. A doctor I had never met came in on Wednesday morning.

He told me that he was an avid cyclist and he wanted to talk to me about cycling. He told me I could no longer cycle the way I did before my surgery, probably never ever again. I was stunned. The thing that I enjoyed doing most in my life, the thing that had made me healthy enough to live through this entire ordeal, was now off-limits to me. Funny, Huh? ( Apparently my aorta still has damaged tissue around the implant and the sutured area and they want me to keep my blood pressure as normal and consistent as possible

This limits any and all strenuous activities like hard exercise, shoveling, snow blowing, mowing lawns, lifting, etc., etc. I have gone for about a dozen slow bike rides but it does not work for me, my main exercise now...walking!  ) The nurses were wonderful and the food was bad but I didn't really want to be there, I just wanted to go home. I got my wish on Thursday, April 12th...

 

It was great to get home. It was great to take a shower. It was great to eat good food. Laurie is one of the best cooks I know. It was great to get into my own bed. Except I could not sleep. I could not get comfortable in my own bed. Every time I moved, I groaned. Every time I groaned, I woke Laurie. Without the morphine, I hurt. I hurt bad.  The first night home  was agony...pure agony. For both of us. The next morning, I nearly fainted in the shower, Laurie saved me from cracking my head open. I was weak and I hurt like hell...without the morphine life was not fun. Every time I moved I heard my ribs pop. I wondered if living was all it was cracked up to be. I wasn't so sure that first full day home.

That night, we put about eight pillows on my side of our king bed, I plopped down in the middle of them all and slept like a baby because I was totally exhausted. We both slept. The next morning, I woke early and made coffee and went out to get our morning paper...using my cane to get to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. I turned around to walk back to the house and saw the most beautiful sunrise in my life. I stopped dead in my tracks and watch the sun come up for ten minutes...crying like a baby! It felt so good to be ALIVE, pain and all. Everyday after that, I got better. Each day was better than the day before. It wasn't easy, as a matter of fact it was the most difficult thing I have ever gone through in my entire life.

My emotions were all over the place during that time, I was happy, sad, angry, melancholy, and scared minutes, sometimes even seconds,  apart. My doctor told me that it was a normal emotional reaction after going through my type of surgery. I was out of work for 10 weeks and I needed every day of it. My ribs popped for months and months afterwards but eventually I felt almost normal again. For anyone reading this that is still recovering from the surgery, you will get better...both physically and mentally. It takes time...a long time, but you will get better as long as you listen to your doctor, pray to God for strength each day, eat right and exercise ( I walk, either outside or on the treadmill everyday,  as much as humanly possible...that is all they will let me do). As I got better, I began to think it was all a really bad dream, all I need to do to remind myself that I really went through it is to look at the nine-inch scare on my chest.

 
AFTERWARDS: DAY BY DAY
Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? Is there something I could of done to prevent this? Is there a way to prevent this from happening to me again? Good questions all...are there really any answers? I doubt it...

 

I try not to dwell on the unknown. God's plan is certainly a mystery to me. What I do know is this. I am thankful for every second, minute, day, month and year that I have been able to breath in life's wonders since April 5th, 2001. I do know that my wife Laurie is the most wonderful thing that ever happen to me. I do know that Family is the most important and valuable possession that I have. I do know that money and status is really nice to have, but if I lost everything that I own tomorrow, I would be a very rich man because of my wonderful family.

I do know who my real friends are and I do love them like my own family. I do know that I am so blessed to be alive that I cannot believe how lucky I am when I wake up each morning.  I do know that like Lance Armstrong, "I only have good days and great days" now. I do know that my life has changed in many ways since THE DAY, some are better and some are not, but it does not matter because I am alive and that is all that matters. I do know that my doctors and God and even a little pure luck gave me  a second chance at life and I am really trying to do my best to enjoy it. I do know that when I am having a tough day at work or I am sitting in a traffic jam, all I have to do is reflect back to late-April in 2001 to understand just how fortunate I am.

I do know that having my aorta dissect was the WORST thing that has ever happened to me. I do know that in a way, it was also the BEST thing that ever happened to me..

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