Cottageville resident Dean Nelson rides an exercise bike inside the cardiac rehab unit at Summerville Medical Center Friday while his nurse, Sandra Nelsen, takes his blood pressure. Nelson undergoes rehab tri-weekly after suffering an aortic tear in July and nearly dying.
Three notable scars mark his body — one along his right thigh, another covering his collarbone and the most significant, down the center of his chest. They are reminders to Dean Nelson of the day he nearly died.
On July 7 the Cottageville resident was boating with his wife on the Edisto River when an intense pain in his heart overtook his body.
“It felt like someone slapped me in the chest with a hot skillet,” Nelson said. “It burned and it hurt.”
Nelson slowed the boat, grabbed his chest and fell onto one knee. He also looked over at his wife, struck with fear.
“My wife said, ‘I’ve never seen that look on your face before so I’m calling 911,’” Nelson said.
The couple believed he was suffering from heat stroke or dehydration. Heart trouble never crossed their minds, he said.
Despite the intense pain, he managed to steer his boat to Jellico’s Landing where his wife called 911, and Dorchester County EMS later arrived to treat him.
“I was sweatin’ bullets,” Nelson said.
In the meantime, he “flopped” into the water to cool off. Noticing something was wrong, other fishermen in the area approached and asked how they could help. Nelson said they waited at the top of U.S. 17-A to direct EMS where to go.
Nelson eventually lifted himself from the river and laid along the front of his boat, and his mind went blank.
“I don’t remember anything after that,” he said. “I don’t even know how I got on the gurney.”
Paramedics were in shock Nelson had made it to the landing in his condition and even instructed his family to say their goodbyes before transporting him to Summerville Medical Center.
“My wife and kids were telling me how much they loved me and to hold on,” Nelson said.
After hospital officials at Summerville Medical hooked him up to a heart monitor and discovered he had an 8-centimeter tear in his heart. Nelson was rushed to Trident Medical Center, a level two trauma facility, for emergency surgery. He didn’t wake up for four days.
During that time, Nelson said, he experienced two different dreams he’ll never forget. In the first one, his dad, who had passed a year earlier, and an old neighbor, also deceased, appeared to him and told him to come to him then turn around and go back.
“It’s giving me chills just thinking about it,” Nelson said. “As much as I wanted to hang out with my dad and Walter, I turned around.”
Defying the odds
When Nelson finally awoke on a Monday — the river incident occurred on Thursday — he had little to no memory of the events leading up to his ICU stay, other than what people told him. Most importantly he learned his condition was hereditary, and the same one that claimed his grandma’s life in her 50s. But Nelson is much younger — just 42, and according to Summerville hospital officials, the condition usually occurs in men ages 60 to 70.
“They said I should’ve died in the boat. I should’ve bled out right then and there,” Nelson said.
But that wasn’t the only miracle; he’s defied the odds every step of the way, including leaving the hospital just eight days after he was admitted.
“They all thought that was pretty amazing,” Nelson said of hospital staff. “They said that was very rare to have something (a condition) like that and even more rare to make it to the hospital, and even rarer to live through it.”
According to Dr. Eric Brittain, Nelson’s main ER doctor at Trident Medical, Nelson suffered an aortic dissection and aortic root aneurysm — a pretty rare condition that strikes about 200,000 people annually. That number is quite low when compared to 1.5 million heart attacks and strokes suffered each year, medical experts said.
In addition, of the 200,000 who encounter an aortic tear, many don’t survive.
“It is a sudden event, and it is usually lethal,” said Nelson’s surgeon, Dr. Charles Roberts, with Palmetto Cardiovascular and Surgical Associates. Roberts said high blood pressure is the condition’s prime culprit, and to save a life, surgical intervention is necessary within six hours of the event. The surgery is also a risky and challenging process.
“It’s the hardest operation we probably do in heart surgery,” Roberts said.
The seasoned surgeon replaced part of Nelson’s ascending aorta and aortic valve.
Nelson said most memorable to him was his first doctor’s appointment four days after returning home from the hospital.
While he should’ve been the one praising medical minds and hands for saving his life, instead they were the ones in awe of him.
“Just about the whole surgical team came in there wanting to shake my hand and told me (that) I was a very lucky man to have made it through,” Nelson said.
Road to recovery
Nelson’s summer scare provided a wakeup call for him, and in light of World Heart Day on Thursday, he said he felt compelled to share his story so others might also review their habits.
For the last 23 years he said he had smoked more than two packs a day, failed to eat healthy, consumed too many energy drinks and rarely worked out.
“I couldn’t even run around the yard with my kids without getting winded,” Nelson said.
He knew he needed to make a lifestyle change, and during the last two months that’s exactly what he’s done, starting with his pantry.
“My wife and I changed up our whole eating habits,” Nelson said. “When I got home from the hospital, we loaded up a couple of totes from the pantry and threw them out.” He’s also stopped smoking and drinking and trying to “go through the whole healing process” correctly.
The incident also reignited his faith.
“I’ve always been religious, but never have I ever experienced such a thing,” Nelson said. “I dusted the Bible off and wanted to research a few things I was curious about.”
He now “looks at things differently” and is not only grateful to be alive but also grateful that the tragedy resulted in positive change, including strengthening his family.
“My wife and I said, ‘More good has come out of this than bad,’” Nelson said.
For the last four weeks, Nelson has worked to regain his physical strength through cardiac rehab at Summerville Medical.
Three times a week he meets with rehab nurses, lifting light weights and working out on the bicycle machine and completing other cardio routines. In November he’ll graduate from the program, and like all other graduates before him, will ring a loud bell on his way out, signifying his success.
Until then, he thanks family and friends for support and God for new life — the “clock ticking” of the artificial pump inside his heart a daily reminder, Nelson said.
He’s since been cleared to drive, allowing him to somewhat return to normalcy. He’s also cut back on his hours at work — he owns his own plumbing business.
“I’m grateful to still be here — very grateful,” Nelson said. “It was a wild ride.”