The benevolence that Dallas W. Hartman has shown through his success has returned to him tenfold since he defied death four years ago.
Today, as the mega-attorney sits down to Thanksgiving dinner with his wife, Kristina, and their four adult children —Logan, Dallas, Nancy and McKenzie — in their lavish Wilmington Township home, they all are thankful for the many acts of kindness — even the smallest — that people bestowed on them while Dallas fought a series of battles that nearly claimed his life.
To Kristina, even a driver moving out of the way on the highway as she sped with Dallas to Jameson’s emergency room for a second time plucked at her heartstrings. Then there were kind doctors and nurses, Dallas’ caring office crew, friends who took food and gift cards, and the way their children all looked out for one another and their parents while they were at the hospital on two different occasions as he hovered between life and death.
His cardiologist, Dr. Elizabeth Piccione, says that anyone else who endured what Dallas did most likely would be dead — and for someone to totally change his lifestyle and come out healthier than he was before is almost unbelievable.
Both Dallas and Kristina have said at different times that a power stronger than modern medicine was at play here.
AN UNHEALTHY LIFESTYLE
Dallas, 59, remembers five years ago being a driven workaholic at his law firm. Time at home was shorter, hours in the office were becoming longer each day.
A noted personal injury lawyer, business had become Hartman’s main objective and success, a prime vocabulary word.
“It was the high point of my career,” Dallas said. In addition to his flagship office in Neshannock Township, he was overseeing offices in New Castle, Hermitage, Butler and Erie and sharing office space in Ohio and in Pittsburgh. To quote his wife, “everything he was touching was turning to gold.”
But this pace had begun to concern her. She urged him to slow down, but he kept on plugging.
“I had met every personal goal and was exceeding them by five to ten times,” he said. “I was knocking it out of the park. I couldn’t work enough, I couldn’t litigate enough, I couldn’t spend enough hours at work. It was so satisfying I couldn’t quench that thirst for achievement.”
But there was one important goal he had set that he almost didn’t make — to live to see his youngest child turn 18.
His life was out of balance, he realizes now, and it taught him that he is not invincible.
With that fast pace of accumulating clients and business came chronic high blood pressure — so high that his hypertension nearly cost him his life.
Reality changed for Dallas on June 5, 2012, three days after his 55th birthday and a week after his son’s 18th birthday. A car buff, he had gone to Sewickley in Allegheny County to look at cars when he suddenly was stricken with searing chest pain that extended into his back. He qualifies the rest of his story as accounts he has learned from others, because from then on, he has no first-hand recollection of what happened to him.
He knows he called his doctor, R. Elbert Acosta, who directed him immediately to UPMC Jameson’s emergency room. He drove himself there from Sewickley. A fast-thinking emergency room doctor visiting from Florida ordered an immediate CAT scan, and a technician reading the results recognized something potentially deadly. Within minutes, Dallas was in a helicopter to UPMC Shadyside in Pittsburgh.
He was diagnosed with aortic dissection.
According to mayoclinic.org, an aortic dissection is a serious, relatively uncommon condition in which the inner layer of the aorta — the large blood vessel branching off the heart — tears. Blood surges through the tear, separating the inner and middle layers of the aorta. If the resulting blood-filled channel ruptures through the outside aortic wall, aortic dissection is often fatal.
Piccione explained that basically in an aortic dissection, the layers are supposed to be like three layers of Saran Wrap and are supposed to be stuck together. In some people with high blood pressure, the force of the blood tears the lining of the aorta, causing blood to go behind it, which can crush the vessel. She likened it to the same effect as water getting in between layers of plastic wrap. The pressure then causes the middle of the pipe to close off, and that can shut off blood supply to the vital organs, she said.
Dallas learned his condition was the direct result of extremely high blood pressure. His aorta had ripped from a second of three layers. He learned that his blood pressure was so high that when the aorta dissected, his aortic valve became unseated and the descending aorta ripped all the way down through to his legs.
Kristina, 62, credits UPMC Jameson for recognizing that it could not effectively treat him and for sending him immediately to a facility that could.
While Dallas was in flight, Kristina contacted the children and they headed for Pittsburgh. When she arrived at Shadyside, the nurse told her she had better go and spend time with Dallas, she said. “I had five or 10 minutes with him and we basically said our good-byes.”
Dr. Thomas Gleason, a cardio-thoracic surgeon and head of the aortic valve center at UPMC Shadyside and Presbyterian hospitals, had just finishedan hours-long heart surgery on another patient when Dallas arrived. Gleason scrubbed up again for an 11-hour procedure that saved Dallas’ life, keeping him on a heart and lung machine for the duration.
“For those 11 hours he concentrated all of his attention on me,” Dallas said.
Kristina recalled that when Gleason finally finished in the operating room, “he came out and was quaking.”
Meanwhile, she encountered two key hospital employees from New Wilmington who gave her a sense of familiarity and reassurance. One was a surgical physician’s assistant. Another was Patti Kaufman, a neighbor of the Hartmans in Wilmington Township, who is a registered nurse. Kaufman was in the operating room and was texting Kristina throughout the operation to comfort her.
“They were so, so kind,” she said.
The surgeon reseated the aortic valve and implanted a synthetic arch for the ascending aorta, Dallas explained, adding that the descending aorta could not be repaired.
Piccione said of Dallas, “He did fabulously. He was relatively young. The tear had gone all the way around and down but it didn’t affect the arteries. He really was remarkable in his recovery.”
THE ROAD HOME, THEN BACK AGAIN
Dallas was discharged within a week after his surgery, and his ambulatory recovery was rapid.
But less than three weeks later, he was back in Shadyside on June 21, having suffered a mini stroke. On June 30, he was flown to Presbyterian after a major stroke.
Kristina recalled being at home and Dallas sitting outside on the porch when he sneezed and lost the feeling in the whole left side of his body.
Not wanting to wait for an ambulance, Kristina rushed Dallas in their car to Jameson’s emergency room. The hospital has a mobile stroke clinic where the doctors conferred from Pittsburgh. Then he was in the air en route to Presbyterian Hospital, where again, Dr. Gleason ran to his rescue.
Another CAT scan showed he had no blood supply to the right side of his brain, according to Piccione.
“He basically was having a massive stroke,” Kristina said. “The pressure had caused that artery to worsen beyond the surgery site and it compromised the blood flow to the head and brain.”
The neurologists were saying there is nothing they could do, she added. Then Gleason took Dallas into the operating room at 9 p.m. and bypassed the vessels to his brain into the carotid artery in the neck and the subclavian artery where the tear was, restoring the blood to his brain.
“I’ve never had any other patients who had that surgery done,” Piccione said.
Dallas’ left side was compromised, and in rehab when he would pick up a row of cones, for example, he’d leave the ones to the left of him. At first, he had to relearn to swallow, then to tell time, and to regain many abilities that most people take for granted. He pushed himself to get better at rehab in UPMC Mercy Hospital, then when he went home he continued at Jameson Rehabilitation Center.
He has since overcome about 98 percent of that limitation but still has residual neglect with his visual acuity and brain processing speed.
He has learned that the odds of overcoming both afflictions are less than 1 percent.
“God has gifted me with that 1 percent,” he said.
It took Dallas about a year to return to work. He has resumed the role of owner and mentor of the law firm, delegating some management responsibilities to attorney Douglas J. Olcott. The firm includes nine lawyers who are among 20 to 35 employees.
Piccione said her job has been to help Dallas get his blood pressure under control.
“We started to develop a plan, looking at how we can change the reasons why this happened.”
Dallas’ survival gave him a new goal, she said. “He looked at it as a challenge and realized he needs to be here for his wife and his children.”
“This has been a journey for him to find his way to wellness,” Piccione said. “He looks younger than he ever did. He has a much better balance in his life due to significant lifestyle changes. This made him realize that a lot of the things we take for granted — getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising — matter at lot.”
Hartman adopted an expert trainer who taught him how to breathe, why he should eat what he eats. The trainer changed his exercise routine so he could maximize shorter exercise times to resolve joint pains.
“His blood pressure now is better than it ever has been, and we’ve been able to decrease the number of medications he takes,” Piccione said.
“Through exercise and good living, I’m down to two blood pressure pills a day,” Dallas said. He still goes to his offices and works, but he has cut back his hours.
“He just works like a normal person now,” Piccione said. “The dissection actually saved his life. Had it not happened, he would have continued down the same road and he would have died.
“Now the person who comes to see me is healthy and vibrant and enjoying his life. As much as the dissection almost took his life, it saved him,” she said.
Dallas still works five days a week on building his muscles, energy and strength.
Dallas believes that he has been blessed with many gifts in his life, and his mantra has always been to give back.
Long before his illness he made contributions to the community that he feels has given him so much, he said, “and I’m still not done. When you come this close to being nonexistent, you re-evaluate everything. I try to use my economic resources in my office to perpetuate good.”
He has given more than $1 million to local agencies, fundraisers and people in need. Each year his firm spends $25,000 to $30,000 in gifts to schools, “because education is important to me,” he said.
The first contribution he made after his illness was to gift $150,000 to Penn State Shenango in Sharon, one of his alma maters, to provide the facilities for a physical and occupational therapy program.
Kristina says she is thankful this Thanksgiving Day.
“I’m thankful for people whom I’ve never met, who shared their gifts and their time to take care of us. I’m thankful that I didn’t lose my faith and the peace that I have,” she said. “I was never a big believer in miracles, but our friends in the community who were praying for us reaffirmed our faith.”
Most of all, she is thankful to have her husband of 28 years still by her side at their 100-acre farm that is completed by four dogs and six Texas Longhorn cattle that they raise as pets.
Piccione credits Kristina for being a dedicated wife and nurse to Dallas and monitoring and adjusting his blood pressure medicine.
“Everyone who gets better from a catastrophic illness has had somebody there to support them,” Piccione said. “He’s so incredibly thankful for his wife and his children and his friends. They are so important to him and it really brought him through this. Kristina has been there for him every day, and always was a source of light for him.”
“We are a team,” Kristina declared, seated with her hands folded on their long, marble-topped kitchen table with Dallas sitting beside her. “We’re a team about everything we do.”
“I’m thankful to God for the spirit he has given me and for my family and for a wonderful wife,” Dallas said. “My spirits are great. My love and appreciation of life are better than they’ve ever been. I am truly grateful that this has happened to me. I can taste and feel all of the colors of life.”