Name: Lisa Elliott
Age at time of Dissection: 50
Type of Dissection: Both Ascending and Descending
Date of Aortic Dissection: 4 August 2015
Tell Us Your Story:

I am a professional aerialist with a history of chronic CMV, but otherwise very healthy. I began experiencing chest pain (upper left), shortness of breath and faintness in November of 2014. I went to a cardiologist in December of 2014 and lucky for me, I fainted in their office during a stress test. I was sent to the ER and received every imagining test there is during a three-day stay in the hospital. Everything came back perfect, except for the echo-cardiogram, which showed an enlarged aorta and leaky valve. They were not particularly concerned due to the absence of obvious risk factors, and sent me home once I could stop fainting. We planned to look at it again in a year.

I continued to have symptoms of shortness of breath, weakness and upper-left pain, which the cardiologist could not explain. Apparently because “you don’t feel an enlarged aorta or a leaky valve” I was told in early Spring that they believed my symptoms were psychological. I am a professional athlete, and my body awareness is far beyond the norm. I am very peaceful and calm, and knew my symptoms were not psychological (i.e., anxiety). It drives me nuts that MD’s routinely make a diagnosis that they’re not particularly qualified to make, based on the fact that they can’t find another explanation.

I continued to train, though modified to reduce symptoms, and performed an aerial act at a public event on August 2nd. I felt horrible. I was weak, and continued to feel chest pain. During a coaching session (I was the coach) on August 4th I felt a sudden, intense burning in my upper left chest and knew it was an aneurysm. It was like a blossoming of fire. After the initial pulse of pain it was unchanged for about 45 seconds, and then it began to burn downwards along the length of my aorta.

EMT’s diagnosed a heart attack and transported me to Swedish Hospital at Cherry Hill. Oddly, I knew it was an aneurysm, but because I had researched aneurysms and understood them to be deadly within minutes, I didn’t bother to tell the EMT’s. I believed I was dead. The only thing I cared about was the trauma I would be causing my two teenagers by my death. Everything else paled in comparison.

Once at the hospital they began treating me for the heart attack, only to quickly discover the aneurysm in the aortic arch. I was quickly moved to another surgical team and repaired in a 10-hour surgery. I have a dacron arch, St. Judes valve and a length of vein harvested from my left leg replacing artery above my heart. The dissection extends about 6 inches into each thigh.

The dissection also interrupted blood flow to my left kidney. I was placed on diuretics and put on fluid restriction, and my lungs were drained several times of up to a liter of fluid from each lung. I was also told that my breathing difficulty was “psychological”. Sexism, anyone? Eventually they discovered the issue with my kidney and placed a stent to improve blood flow. My breathing eased immediately and has remained stable.

During the month-long episode with kidney failure I was also paralyzed twice for several days because, theoretically, flaps of tissue from the dissection blocked blood flow to my spine. This was an intermittent problem, and I currently have use of my extremities, though not complete.

I’ll be returning to surgery for placement of a stent at the bottom of the aorta where it splits into the femoral arteries. Currently I can’t walk more than a few feet without running out of blood and oxygen in my leg muscles. Blood flow is predominantly in the false lumen, and turbulence from the complicated path leads to an inadequate supply. At this point my mobility and the possibility of leading a active life will depend on the success of this procedure. I am hopeful, and very, very nervous. So much depends on it. I have many questions for my surgeon.

I continue to go to the gym and do what I can. Mostly I work on range-of-motion and air squats. I also work, very carefully, on a form of acrobatics I have developed using a physio-ball. It’s very fluid and easy. I’m amazed I haven’t experienced more atrophy than I have. I have to lay down flat quite often to allow perfusion of my muscles in my extremities. It’s very uncomfortable to exert myself, and results in a burning and cramping in my abdominal, hip and leg muscles. I also have an intense tingling in my extremities, especially on the left side, where the weakness is also the worst, which increases with exertion.

I have no family history of aneurysm or dissection, no problems with my heart at all, no problems with my blood pressure, no lifestyle-related risk factors, and no predisposing diseases. I’ve eaten an anti-inflammatory diet for 20 years (Paleo). This seems to be related to my connective tissue disorders (CMV and something like CFS) combined with the very high intra-thoracic pressure produced by my aerial acrobatics training and performing. In that way it’s very similar to aneurysms and dissections resulting from weight lifting.

The story isn’t over yet. I’m looking forward to working with the rehab team after this stent procedure to determine what, if any, of my acrobatics practice will be possible for me. I love practicing hand balancing, but of course no one knows if that’s advisable for post-dissection patients. The two don’t generally go together! It’s up to me.

So glad to have found this site. Thank you!