For those that don't know, almost three years ago, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with a descending aortic dissection. I received a phone call early on a Sunday morning, telling me to get on the next flight home from college, since they didn't expect my grandmother to live out the day. I packed like a speed demon; I got on a plane and I sped home to NJ. My dad met me at the airport and we went straight to the hospital where my grandmother was in Staten Island. And then, with the rest of my family, we sat a death watch.
If you've ever had to do that for a relative, it's not a pleasant experience. We were told the odds that most people died within 40 minutes of the initial heart pain; maybe another 10% made it to the hospital ER, and of those, only a very, very few amount managed to survive. For those that don't know, what a descending aortic dissection is, essentially, is a ballooning of your aorta where it rips in a certain way (I'm not being exceedingly technical here, by the way); the result of this happening is that blood then rushes into the pericardium, which is the sac around your heart, and essentially strangles the heart muscle in blood. Not a pleasant way to die.
We sat that death watch for three days straight. Nobody expected my grandmother to survive; she was 92 at the time and we were told that any surgery was too risky to attempt. My father, however, did not give up. He called what must have been every single hospital in the NYC metropolitan area, searching and searching and searching for a heart surgeon who would attempt to perform the surgery. My grandmother had made it past the first day, so they suspected that some temporary scar tissue had formed, and was keeping her alive. My father called and called and called, until he found a wonderful doctor at NYU Medical Center, a man who was willing to take on the task of performing such a geriatric cardiac operation: Dr. Culliford (I hope I'm spelling his name right).
It was risky. It was dangerous. There was a very large chance that my grandmother would go into the surgery and never wake up. Or wake up as a vegetable. Or many other worse things. But Dr. Culliford agreed to do the surgery and she was rushed to NYU Medical Center. And after eight hours on the operating table, two of them with her heart completely stopped, my grandmother made it through, with all her senses and faculties completely intact. It was nothing short of a minor medical miracle.
I've mentioned briefly before that she'll be 95 on her next birthday in March. She's doing well, and is definitely enjoying the 5" inches of synthetic aorta, plus the new aortic valve that she was given during the surgery. But why am I telling you this story, you ask?
Because I just read the most amazing article in the NY Times, about the exact type of heart surgery that saved my grandmother's life. It was performed on Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, who was not only 97 at the time, but was the heart surgeon who had devised the original surgical procedure. He's alive and well now. And his story is nothing short of incredible.