Name: Dave Pendergrass
Age at time of Dissection: 60
Type of Dissection: Ascending
Date of Aortic Dissection: 31 October 2008
Tell Us Your Story:

Ineed to give you a little background in order for you to truly appreciate the irony of my story.

In late 2005 I’m in the best shape I have been in since I got out of the Marine Corps 30 years before. My weight has been slowly dropping for 2 or 3 years. I have been walking the golf course and riding a bicycle, and in general feel better than anyone I know at my age. As part of an annual ritual, I traveled to Kansas to hunt pheasant with friends as we have been doing every winter since 1994. As we’re walking the fields I find myself wheezing and out of breath with no explanation. I feel fine other than the breathing problems during exertion. I vowed to see the doctor when I get home.

I saw Dr. Curry and explained the symptoms. He observed that I have been seeing him for flight physicals since the late 80’s and have never been seriously ill. He does some preliminary checking and prescribes a medication that you inhale a few times a day. It helps a little, but not much. After a couple of weeks he sends me for x-rays. Then he calls the next day and insists that I have a CT-scan immediately. The day after that he calls me to say he has scheduled an appointment with a Dr. Butler, an oncologist. This news scares the crap out of me. Nobody in my family has ever had cancer and after a little thinking I dismiss the implication, but see Dr. Butler anyway. He does another CT-scan and says I need to have a biopsy and that he has scheduled it for me with Dr. Garrett, who is not only the head of the Virginia Hospital Center’s vascular surgery unit, he is also the Chairman of the Board of the hospital.

I feel pretty good about this resume, but I’m also a little concerned that this much talent is needed for a simple biopsy.Then I find out that in order to do the biopsy, Dr. Garrett has to go into my chest cavity behind the breast bone and take a piece of one of my lymph nodes that is the size of a softball. Now I understand. So he does the biopsy and I’m in and out of the hospital in a few hours (even though it’s surgery with an operating room, anesthesiologist and all) with a few stitches closing a slice where they cut my throat in order to get the tool behind my breast bone.And then the diagnosis is confirmed, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 57. All of a sudden, everything changes. Even though Dr. Butler assures me that while it is not curable (great, more good news) it is treatable (what does that mean).

They treat me with something called Rituxan, and it’s not too bad. No side-effects to speak of. No hair loss. In fact, since I’m traveling a lot for work during this period, I usually leave the treatments and drive to Richmond for calls. And after just 9 weeks, the cancer goes into remission. Although, Dr. Butler warns me that it’s not cured, just gone to sleep. He says that there is no reason why I can’t live a normal life span and occasionally get treated in the same fashion. Some good news, but my ability to get life insurance or health insurance, or donate blood or organs just went away.

Then 2 years after the treatments, in 2008, I notice that my right arm pit is no longer a pit. Sure enough, at age 59 it’s back. The first thing Dr. Butler does is order a CT scan. By the way, of all the tests they do during this adventure, the prep for a CT scan is probably the worst. You have to drink 2 large glasses of this really nasty liquid before they actually do the scan. Not only is it a lot of liquid to get down in a short time and tastes bad, it gives you the green-apple two-step after about 30 minutes.

I see Dr. Butler the next day and he says that not only is the lymphoma back, but the x-ray tech caught something else and I have to go over to Dr. Garrett’s office right now. I go see Dr. Garrett and he informs me I have a dissection in my ascending aorta and he is scheduling open-heart surgery for tomorrow to repair it before it blows out completely. I should point out that my mother had the same thing happen to her 3 months before, only in her case it did blow and luckily they were 2 minutes from the hospital where they were able to rush her into surgery and save her life.

I held up my hand and told Dr. Garrett that we were going to have to postpone that surgery for a little while. He was not happy, but after hearing my reasoning, he agreed. Not only did I not have the kind of pain my mother had described, but my daughter-in-law was at that time dying of a cancer in her female organs. I just didn’t think it would be appropriate to heap this on top of everything else the family was going through at that moment. My wife wasn’t real happy about this decision, but she did go along.

Tammy passed away within a few weeks, and then I had to tell my son about the problem because I couldn’t travel to be at her funeral. Now the whole family knows and the irony of the cancer saving my life becomes apparent. If I hadn’t gotten the CT-scan, I wouldn’t have known about the aneurism, and when those blow you have about 3 minutes before you bleed out.

So Dr. Garrett orders an angiogram to check for potential heart problems that he can fix while he’s in there. Clean bill of health on the heart, no problems. Unfortunately, that evening the plug they put in the hole in my femoral artery ruptures after dinner and I wind up with a blood clot in my groin the size of my hand. Dr. Garrett has to repair this artery and that procedure delays the open-heart surgery by 2 weeks. What the hell, we’ve already waited a couple of months. But, another surgery, anesthesia, operating room, the whole nine yards. However, Dr. Garrett really knows his business and while I needed a cane to walk into the hospital, I walk out like a new man the same day.
2 weeks later, we go for the big one, open-heart surgery.

I do a little reading and this scares the crap out of me, again. What they’re going to do is replace a section of my ascending aorta with a piece of Dacron tubing. Yep, cut out a section of a large and vital artery and replace it with a cloth-feeling tube that gets sewn in. What a miserable experience waking up from open-heart surgery is. At first you’re paralyzed and can’t move anything but your eyes. Then as the drugs start to wear off you realize at some point your not breathing. I always thought people would choke if they had a tube down they’re throat while they were awake, but if you’re not breathing, apparently there’s no choke reflex. But it is a strange feeling to be awake and conscious of the fact that you are not breathing and yet don’t need air.

So, I spend a few days in the hospital and go home to recuperate. One of the things they like to do nowadays is have a “visiting nurse” visit you at home and save the cost of an office visit. This sounds like a really good idea until the nurse shows up. Right out of the gate she’s giving orders that are contrary to what Dr. Garrett told me, at least I think they are. They had me on so many drugs I can’t really be sure. But in any case, I push back a little on her instructions and she replies with “you’re a heart patient and you have to do these things”. That’s when I know this is not going to work.

I’m not a heart patient. There’s nothing wrong with my heart. In fact, other than being a little weak and groggy from the anesthesia and drugs, I feel fine if a little sleepy. I’m really happy that my daughter Anne has come to spend a few days even though there’s not much for her to do, it does give Connie a break and I don’t have to do anything but be lazy and let someone wait on me between naps. In any case, I figured I’d just ignore the contrary instructions and take advantage of her coming in every couple of days to check my vitals and make sure all is going well.

The second time she comes, she gets all upset because I didn’t follow the letter of her instructions. At that point, I dismiss her and she leaves in a huff. And 2 ½ weeks after surgery I returned to work. They really have this chest-cracking thing down to a science. No aftereffects, no recovery problems, no pain to speak of. Once I was home I stopped taking any drugs other than aspirin.

During this whole process, everyone keeps asking me about the pain when the dissection occurred. I never knew what they were talking about, but as I read your story and others it occurs to me that it probably happened 10 months earlier and I just ignored it. I was back in Kansas for the annual hunt and the night before I got there in the hotel room I was brushing my teeth and had this sudden tearing pain in my lower back that almost knocked me out. I laid down on the bed and after 30-minutes or so it went away. Other than that, I never had any kind of severe pain and if it hadn’t been for the CT scan for the cancer, I may never have known until it was too late that there was even a problem.

Anyway, I turn 65 this year and am playing the best golf of my life in spite of a hip replacement in 2010.

Thanks for putting this site up and providing so much information. It really does help to be able to read about the experiences of others. I hope this story helps someone since it all turned out so well.