Zach Swafford-23

Name: Zach Swafford
Age at time of Dissection: 23
Type of Dissection: Descending
Date of Aortic Dissection: 18 December 2011
Tell Us Your Story:

My story was not like most on this site that I’ve read because my injury was not dissection but a torn aorta as a result of a car accident. Though the onset of the condition was different the treatment for the my aortic tear was the same, a bypass. However, through a series of very lucky and timely coincidences I was saved by a groundbreaking procedure, an aortic stent.

Before I start this story I should say that I don’t remember anything about my accident. During severe trauma the body begins pumping so much adrenaline that your brain loses it’s ability to form memory. In many ways I’m glad I don’t remember it.

I had just graduated from the University of Idaho and was traveling home to Reno, NV with my car packed to the brim. I reached a stretch of road that receives no sunlight in the winter as the road enters a canyon. Unknown to me, rain from 2 days before had formed black ice on the road. I lost control, went sideways and was struck by an oncoming car on the driver’s side. I was knocked unconscious. When I came to a short time later I was pinned in my car. I was complaining of severe chest pain.

My aorta had almost entirely torn. Of the aorta’s 4 layers, the 3 inside had torn and the fourth had partially torn. I was losing blood fast. The accident had happened a couple miles south of a small town in Idaho called Cambridge and there was no cell phone reception. Luckily a truck driver came along only a minute later, radioed out to another driver who called 911. The accident occurred at 11:45am…the volunteer ambulance out of Cambridge was dispatched at 11:46. When the paramedics got there they had to use the jaws of life to get me out of the car. That took around 10 or 15 minutes because the drivers side of my car was so crushed in. Once they got it open, they got me on a back brace and headed south with me to meet the professional paramedic crew who was heading north out of Weiser to meet them.

When the ambulance met they stopped on the side of the road, the professional paramedics jumped into the other ambulance and tried to get an IV going. I was in such a severe state of shock at this point that it was nearly impossible. I was fading in and out of consciousness but I was talking. Apparently I kept cracking jokes (I really need to find a less dark sense of humor). The paramedic said that it was the toughest stick he’s had to do in the 25 years he’s been doing it but they eventually got 2 going, one in each arm and they began squeezing fluids into me. Once they got those going they headed to Midvale Airport to meet the Lifeflight helicopter that was coming in to get me.

By the time the helo landed they had pushed 5 units of fluid (5 liters) in 25 minutes. They had thought about hanging a sixth bag but were worried it would dilute my blood so much I wouldn’t be able to carry oxygen. When they got me on the helicopter the paramedics thought I wouldn’t even ma
ke it to the hospital in Boise.

The trip on the helicopter is a mystery. I don’t know if they did anything else to stabilize me or if that didn’t happen until the hospital because I survived a couple more hours until my surgery. When I got to the hospital they gave me a CT scan and determined I had a ruptured aorta. This is where I become extremely lucky. Dr. Christopher Alessi.

As most of you know the standard procedure for repairing the aorta is open heart surgery. The risk level of that surgery is high when it’s planned and in the best circumstances. The survival rate for that surgery for a person in my state was less than 10%. However, Dr. Alessi had pioneered a procedure for repairing an aortic tear with an aortic stent. The imaging was sent to Dr. Alessi at his home in Boise and he said he could repair the damage and headed to the hospital. They had me ready when he arrived.

The procedure involved cutting into the top of my left leg to access my femoral artery where they slipped the stent in. They moved the stent up the femoral artery and all the way up my aorta until it reached the damaged area. The problem was that my tear had knocked my aorta out of the alignment and the stent couldn’t slide through so they had to wrench my body around on the table to get the damaged ends of my aorta to line up. Finally the stent slid into the damaged area and was deployed by inflating a balloon. After the stent was deployed I began to stabilize. The procedure took a little more than a half an hour.

I woke up a day later, intibated and unable to see in the ICU. I couldn’t remember anything so naturally I was a bit confused. By this time my parents had made the trip up to Boise and were there to explain what happened. My dad’s side of the family all lives in Boise so I had tremendous family support for my recovery.

I later found out that this procedure has only been done for 2 years. Dr. Alessi pioneered the procedure and I was in 1 of the 3 places in the country (Seattle, Atlanta, and Boise) that I could receive this procedure. Dr. Alessi estimated that I’m around the 20th person in the world to have this done.

I sustained a number of other injuries in the accident. Fractures in every rib on my left side and a couple on my right, lacerated spleen and liver, non-displaced fractures in my pelvis, non-displaced fractures in my L3 and L4 vertebra and a partially collapsed lung. I had a chest tube put in to drain all the blood that I had lost internally. The first few days I was putting out nearly 4000ccs of fluid a day but that tailed off quickly and I was released from the hospital 8 days later. I spent a couple weeks with family and my amazing girlfriend who flew in to see me in Boise. Then I headed home. I’ve been here in Reno healing for a few weeks now and I expect a full recovery soon.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about the accident and how lucky I am. It’s been a weird thing to think about. In fact, in many ways I still haven’t really come to terms with it. Had it happened a couple years earlier, a few miles more remote, if the car had hit mine farther forward, if I wasn’t as calm as I was after the accident, if I wasn’t near Boise, if Dr. Alessi hadn’t have been there…all those things run through my head constantly. I just remind myself to be thankful for the new lot on life that I have and make the most of it. I have a supportive family and an amazing and loving girlfriend. I am lucky in so many more ways than just the accident and it’s helped me see that. I won’t waste it.

P.S. Thanks for stopping by to view our stories. Please help me keep the site going by shopping at’s very much appreciated. Brian Tinsley founder of Shop Amazon’s Gift Cards – Perfect Anytime


Cheryl Devine-41


Terri Diewold-48


  1. victoria

    Hello Zach I was wondering how you are now and do you play any sports. Are you on bp pills and thinners and if you have to have further son also suffered same injuries in car accident at age 19. It’s been almost year. He had a Stent inserted . His ruptured at arch to descending sacrificing subclass an .

  2. Raymond

    Hi Victoria Im 29 and have an arch tear as well from a bad dirt bike wreck. It was just over 2 years ago.. I have healed up great. i don’t listen too my doctors too well. They told me a maximum heart rate of 140 and I ride mtn bikes to the top of mountains with a heart rate of around 180 the whole time for hours and haven’t had any problems. I lift heavy stuff and have wrecked on my bikes a few times and no problems. I haven’t let it slow me down. I’m on 10mg Lisinopril a day. I’m going to type and post my story soon. I’d really love to hear from you about your son. Zach if your seeing this i’d like to hear an update for you and if you still live in Reno it would be awesome to go get lunch and talk sometime I haven’t met anyone with this problem yet. Or if anyone else wants to talk about it.

  3. Marianne Lulinski

    I am so glad that the doctors were able to sve you! My son had this happen in a small hospital in a small town in Illinois. Doctor’s did not know what to do. They tried to srtabalize him and get him to a larger hopspital in St. Louis….but they procratinated so long that he went into critical conditon and it ruputred completely. He passed 2 years ago at amost only 19 years of age. I feel tha we never got the ppoper medical care. I”m devastatedas he was my only child! 2years before he had severe lower back pain. I had to BEG for an MRI . Doctor claimed htat he had 2 bulging disc’s. I think that it was dural ectasia.

  4. Zach Swafford


    I am so sorry for your loss. I have no illusion of the fact that I was lucky and that many others, your son included, were not as fortunate to receive the care that I did. My condolences to you and your family.


  5. Zach Swafford


    I’m sorry I missed your post. It’s been awhile since I checked in. I’m doing well. I’m not on any medications. Dr. Alessi said I could take aspirin as a mild blood thinner but that it wasn’t necessary so I don’t. I’m doing well and haven’t needed any more surgery. Though my left subclavean artery is partially blocked by the stent I haven’t noticed any major issues with my left arm getting tired or weak enough to go through a surgery to repair it.

    I’m glad your son survived and I hope he enjoys a long full life.

  6. Zach Swafford


    I’m doing well, nothing to complain about. I’m living in Tennessee with my now wife (then girlfriend) but I still make it out to Reno a couple times a year to see family. If you’d like to meet up at some point let me know. I’ll leave an e-mail address below.

    Hope all is well.


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