When Aortic Dissection Strikes Without Warning

January 03, 2018 7:00 AM

As Darcy Way learned, a sudden aortic dissection can be fatal. But luck was on his side last February.

Darcy Way’s aortic dissection might have killed him, if not for the quick action of emergency responders and a medical flight team.

This right place, right time scenario left him feeling that the stars were aligned.

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“Things might have easily taken a different turn that day, with a completely different outcome,” Way says. “I count my blessings every day.”

Way, a senior advancement officer for Michigan Tech Athletics at Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula town of Houghton, was headed to a brunch for the school’s senior hockey players when things started to go wrong.

The 58-year-old says he remembers turning onto the highway near downtown Houghton, but has no recollection of running a red light, crossing the highway center line and colliding with two vehicles before his car came to a stop.

He had blacked out.

Way was rushed to a nearby hospital where a CT scan revealed an aortic dissection.

Aortic dissection risk factors and symptoms

Aortic dissection is a serious condition in which a tear occurs in the wall of the aorta, the major artery carrying blood out of the heart. As the tear extends along the wall of the aorta, blood can flow in between the layers of the blood vessel wall, which can lead to aortic rupture or decreased blood flow to organs.

Risk factors for aortic dissection include:

Certain genetic diseases, including Turner’s syndrome, Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, can also increase the risk of having one.

While Way’s only symptom was loss of consciousness, other symptoms associated with aortic dissection include:

  • Sudden severe chest or upper back pain (described as a tearing or ripping sensation) that radiates to the neck or down the back

  • Shortness of breath

  • Sudden difficulty speaking, loss of vision, weakness or paralysis on one side of the body

Fast action

When local doctors determined they couldn’t treat Way’s life-threatening condition, a University of Michigan Survival Flight team was sent. Four hours later, Way was in a U-M operating room with Himanshu Patel, M.D., who performed open-heart surgery to successfully repair Way’s torn aorta while saving his aortic valve. This traditional treatment for aortic dissection involves a synthetic graft placed where the dissection occurred, allowing blood to flow normally, says Patel.

SEE ALSO: After Aortic Dissection and Intense Surgery, a 'Miracle'

As Way’s wife, Kim, drove eight hours from the couple’s Eau Claire, Wisconsin, home, daughter Elizabeth, a Traverse City, Michigan, nurse, kept her informed of what was happening.

“We knew that most people never make it to the hospital after having an aortic dissection,” says Kim, who describes her husband’s survival and recovery as miraculous.

“His surgery was done on a Sunday, by Friday he was in a step-down unit, and he was home recovering the next Tuesday.”

While an exam by Way’s internist a week before the dissection revealed no warning signs, his father and grandfather died of heart-related complications at relatively young ages, pointing to a potential genetic component.

Today Way is paying much closer attention to his health. “I’m eating better, exercising and monitoring my blood pressure. This has been a big wake-up call,” he says, adding that he’s thankful to everyone who played a part in saving his life, “including the trauma team, Dr. Patel and the entire U-M staff.” 

Kim is convinced someone was watching over her husband that day. “Everything that needed to happen to keep Darcy alive that day did happen. We are so very grateful.”