Surviving a Close Call

July 9, 2014

Mark and Krista Johnson before Mark's hospitalization.

Mark Johson with his now 10-month-old baby boy.

ST. LOUIS - Mark Johnson, 49, never thought he was at risk for health problems. He stayed active with running and cycling, ate well and was health conscious. In fact, like many seemingly healthy men, he hadn’t been to the doctor in four years – until this year.

After a bike ride and dinner out, Mark and his wife, Krista, settled in. Krista was awakened when Mark got up around 2:30 a.m., with a headache. A few minutes later she heard him call to her. Krista joked she’s a light sleeper since they have a 4-month-old baby.

“I went down to check on Mark and he was drenched in sweat. He looked like he just got out of a swimming pool,” Krista recalled. “He lost his vision and we knew something wasn’t right.”

Krista called 9-1-1 and fought for Mark to be taken to Mercy Hospital St. Louis. When they arrived via ambulance Krista was awed at how quickly the emergency department staff acted.

“It was amazing. They quickly recognized an aortic dissection and called the surgeon,” Krista said. “Dr. [Mark] Blucher and his team came in and took Mark to surgery and kept me informed the whole time.”

An aortic dissection is a life-threatening condition in which a tear occurs in the inner muscle wall lining of the aorta. For aorta ruptures, the mortality rate is 80 percent – half of these patients die before reaching the hospital. While the cause isn’t clear, risk factors include high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes and smoking.

“Mark was extremely lucky,” said Dr. Blucher, cardiothoracic surgeon with Mercy Clinic Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. “He had a very bad tear in a very bad location on the aorta.”

For patients who make it to the hospital, surgeries can last up to 10 hours depending on the severity of the tear. In many cases, even after surgery, patients still have chronic dissections.

“I was able to remove the entire tear and dissection,” Blucher recalled. “This will help Mark in the long run because he won’t have to manage an ongoing issue.”

Mark made it through the initial eight-hour surgery to repair his dissection but recovery posed additional issues. Following surgery, his care was managed by several specialists, including cardiothoracic surgeons, critical care physicians, rehabilitation specialists and cardiologists, just to name a few.

“He never had any symptoms. He was never overly tired or stressed. There was never anything to lead us to consider it,” Krista mentioned. “We found out later that he had undetected high blood pressure.”

Dr. Blucher sees aortic dissections in patients ranging in age from 30 to 80. “We just don’t know why it happens,” he said. “It’s like a lightning strike. Mark was as close as you can get to not making it. His age, strength and health helped him, along with a strong support system of his wife and family.”

Many things were on Mark’s side for him to make it to the hospital, including being at home. Krista recalled Mark was originally scheduled for a work trip that got canceled. He still has a long road ahead of him, but he definitely beat the odds.

"I think he’s a walking miracle,” Krista said. “The Mercy doctors and nurses are amazing!”

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