Name: Henry Stephens
Age at time of Dissection: 56
Type of Dissection: Ascending
Date of Aortic Dissection: 12 May 2014
Tell Us Your Story:

My adventure starts on the morning of May 12, 2014, in Vero Beach, Fla. It was a Monday. But I expected a fairly low-stress day ahead.

Got to work about 9 a.m., made a few calls and decided to head to City Hall.

I never made it.

About 11 a.m., I got in my car in the parking lot and immediately felt the strangest pain I’ve ever felt. It was like repeated mallet blows to my throat, just above the collar bone. I had no reference for this pain. It was not any of the heart-attack warning signals.
I was scared.

What I should have done: Immediately call 911 from my cell phone.

What I did: Behave like a guy. I figured if I just took things easily, drove very slowly to City Hall, this odd pain would go away and life as usual would resume.

What God did: Remind me who was in charge.

No sooner had I driven out of the parking lot than I realized I wasn’t going to make it anywhere. I pulled off the road and drew out my cell phone to call 911.
But by then, my eyes were so watery I couldn’t focus on the keypad.

I thought, OK, I’ll get out into the fresh air and try this again. I opened my door and tried to get out. But my legs were as weak as water. I couldn’t stand up. Instead, I slid from the driver’s seat onto the grass.
And that was a good thing. If I had stayed in my car, nobody would have noticed for quite some time.

In seconds, coworkers or visitors recognized me, asked what was wrong. I said I thought I was having a heart attack. A few people called 911. In a minute or so, there were paramedics and an oxygen mask was put on my face. And that’s the last I can remember before passing out.

Mom says whoever got through on 911 was my guardian angel.

The very next thing I remember is a glimpse of hospital room equipment. So it was that serious? I thought. Then I drifted off again. Next, I remember the very same equipment at night, under the indirect light of the hallway. Guess it was that serious.

Apparently I was out for several hours in my room at Indian River Medical Center’s surgical intensive care unit. At one point, my cardiac surgeon, Dr. Mark Malias, came in with nurses and recited what had happened to me. It went in one dazed ear and out the other. But I remember he said it wasn’t a heart attack.

I learned later it was an aortic dissection. Malias patched me up with an artificial graft.
Nurses kept saying I had a “new lease on life.” Aortic dissections are rare, I was told, but surviving one is even rarer.

I was in the hospital until my discharge on May 20. And in a day when many surgery patients go home the same day, that length of stay tells me this was a Big Deal.

What the surgeons did was not technically “open-heart” surgery. They didn’t have to go into the heart. But they still had to spread the ribs open to work on the aorta.

Opening the sternum means I had a broken bone needing to knit back together, even after the heart was repaired.

Since being home, I have focused on relearning things I previously took for granted, such as breathing. I need to use a spirometer to exercise my lungs so they don’t settle on the volume they have when I’m at rest.

And I need to walk, at least 20 minutes a day. Sounds like no big deal, but it now means planning around the oppressive afternoon heat and dodging these frequent summer storms.

Even sleeping can be a task. I was normally a side sleeper, but now I must remain on my back. The one time I tried to roll over in my sleep brought a chest pain that woke me up and returned me to my back.

Through all this, my wife has been an angel. She has taken over my half of the chores, such as mowing the very weedy lawn and taking out the garbage. She has driven me when I couldn’t drive, walked with me, kept track of my numerous doctor and cardiac therapy appointments and dispensed the twice-a-day cocktail of prescription drugs.

And now, after 12 weeks of disability leave, I am about to return to work. And I have to remember: Pace myself, monitor that blood pressure, don’t go back to fast food for lunch, take healthier meals from home. … and pray.