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Mending a Broken Heart: One Man's Medical Odyssey

Two weeks before his wedding, Chris Morgan's aorta literally tore from his heart to his pelvis—a rare condition that almost cost him his life.

Chris Morgan was emceeing a three-and-a-half hour banquet when a strange feeling passed over him.

"The moment they handed me the microphone a busload of tingles drove through me," the Eagan High swim coach recalled. "I felt kind of weird, but I didn't feel like I was having a heart attack or anything, so I just kept talking.”

As the night wore on, Morgan felt unusually fatigued as if “someone had unplugged my heel and all my energy drained out.” He began to sweat heavily, but he kept going. Little did he know that the largest artery in his body was splitting, tearing apart from his heart to his stomach. Chris Morgan was in the throes of an aortic dissection—a medical condition in which a tear develops in the aorta, the main blood vessel branching off the heart, causing the inner layers of the vessel to separate.

It is a rare and often fatal condition. The exact causes are not fully known, though aortic dissection it is more frequent in older men and has been known to occur as a result of blunt force trauma, like a car accident. It also sometimes strikes otherwise healthy pregnant women.

It remains unclear why such a lot should befall Morgan, an energetic and active father of three. 

"You're as likely to have this happen as you are to win the lottery or get struck by lightning. It's one of those things," Morgan said.

A Twist of Fate, A Wedding Delayed 

Though Morgan recently had troubles with kidney stones, his heart and vascular system were in tip-top shape. He had no blockages, no high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

His number came up at a time of great hope for the Morgans. The two were legally married in November, but both had worked tirelessly to fund a white dress ceremony in Mexico. They were looking forward to saying their vows on a pristine white beach surrounded by family and friends.

“We both worked two jobs, our full-time positions and then coaching for 14 weeks so that we could save money and go,” said Morgan’s wife Amy, an IT project manager with Capella University and diving coach for Eagan High. “It was hard. That wedding is what we looked forward to when we were getting up at 5 a.m. every day.”

With the end of swimming season, their dreams were in sight. The plane tickets were reserved, the hotel was booked and the white dress was hanging in the closet — all ready for their big day on March 20.

"We had it all worked out perfectly. It was all going according to plan," Chris said.

Instead the Farmington couple ended up in the ER at . One of the first to see Chris was Nurse Molly Mattson, a swim parent who had been present at the banquet before going on her shift at the ER at 11.

“He had all the classic symptoms. We knew really quick that he was in trouble,” Mattson said. “He was pale. I watched his heart rate drop from 80 to 70 to 60 to 50 to 40 to 30. It was real touch and go type thing.”

Within about five minutes of the Morgan's arrival, Doctor John Houghland decided to do a CAT scan, in addition to an electrocardiogram (EKG) and an ultrasound.

“I think he knew that I had it right away, based on the fact that I had two different blood pressures in each arm, but he wasn't letting on until he knew for sure,” Chris said.

The results confirmed Houghland's suspicions. The ER team kicked into high gear, giving Chris fluid and blood in both arms to stabilize his blood pressure. A chopper was called in. Chris was going into surgery immediately in the operating room at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

There was no plan B.

“That's when things got a little scary. They stopped talking to us and moved us out of the room with the TV where you can sit around and make jokes,” Chris said. “That's when you get moved to the room with the shiny metal and no creature comforts.”

A Race Against Time

Hastily, the team loaded Chris onto the helicopter. Eight-and-a-half minutes later he arrived at the U of M. He was on the operating table within the hour. If even five more minutes had passed, Chris Morgan would not have made it, Mattson said.

“He was very lucky. His survival chances were 5 percent,” Mattson said. “I don't think they comprehended that he was going to die at any moment on the table. Every time I looked at him I thought that this was it.”

On the operating table, doctors found extensive internal damage. A series of tears riddled 28 inches of his aorta, extending from his heart all the way into Morgan’s right leg. Surgeons replaced the top four centimeters of Morgan’s shredded aorta and repaired the top half of the blood vessel. The surgery concluded during the wee hours of March 12.

Chris was in the clear.

An Uncertain Prognosis 

So far, surgeons have not touched the bottom half of his aorta, which remains compromised. A number of his vital organs are getting blood through the breach. At this point, Morgan’s doctors don’t want to risk further surgery, which could cut off that blood supply.

As a result, Morgan has a double pulse in his abdomen, just one of the many oddities resulting from this unusual condition.

Aortic dissection is not common, but survival is especially rare.

“I recently spoke with a vascular surgeon recently who specializes in fixing dissected aortas from the mid-chest down. He's only met 12 people in his life who have survived it,” Chris said. “Because of that they’re taking a wait and see approach: I don't feel there's a lack of effort, but a lack of data to support decision making. You can't look at 100 case studies and say that XY or Z will happen in three months.”

The Morgans are grateful to the team at Fairview Ridges. Without their quick and accurate appraisal, Chris would not be here to tell the tale. They are particularly indebted to Nurse Mattson, who made a special effort to get him the best care possible at the U of M. With a few frantic phone calls, Mattson was able to get one of the most talented surgeons, Herbert Ward, out of bed and into the OR.

“I felt like I had the A-team everywhere I went,” Chris said.

Nevertheless, the ordeal has taken its toll on the couple. The uncertainty of Chris’ fate has also weighed heavily on the two of them. 

"It's been hard. We feel blessed and then we're mad. It's just this whole gamut of emotions," Amy said. "It's been a real roller coaster for both of us, but we know we're lucky."

Chris, a sales manager, went back to work this week. The Morgans missed their wedding, of course. The resort has allowed them to reschedule their stay, the ceremony and the dinner, but Delta Vacations has been far less flexible. For now, the white dress is gathering dust, but the Morgans hope to make it Mexico by October.

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Patty Peterson April 30, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Chris, I am a "fellow" aortic dissection survivor. I add mechanical valve to my repair too. You are so lucky to have been diagnosed properly, as was I. Great strides are being made in determining why this happens to an individual. I'd love to talk to you more about this. Your siblings and children (if you have children) need to have their aortas checked by an echo. This runs in families. Not to scare you, but this is information the public needs to know, as do we. Please check the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health. Also, www.tadcoalition.org You are a walking miracle. I'm 5 years out. Life does go on with an enhanced awareness of what a blessing every day is. Contact me any time. Patty Peterson Www.pattypeterson.com
Patty Peterson April 30, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Please note... My name is Patty Peterson.. Not party peterson! Good old spellcheck
Clare Kennedy April 30, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Thanks for sharing Patty. It's good to have perspective on this from another survivor. You all are a rare bunch.
Patty Peterson April 30, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Clare, you wrote about this in such an informational way. Thank you for doing this article. We, on the TAD Coalition, look for articles about Aortic Dissection. It is our mission to make sure that it is not confused with a heart attack. TAD stands for Thoracic Aortic Dissection Coalition. I am lucky to be one of the survivors on this panel. Thank you.. Patty
robert May 09, 2012 at 02:47 AM
Chris: In 1992 my aorta tore very painfully. I had a double barrel aorta that started at my heat and down into both legs. Most of my aorta has been repaired and I feel great. Like you they repaired the aorta near the heart first. Then repaired the rest down into my right leg with two additional surgeries. Like you I am very active and between surgeries while they were watching and waiting I kept busy although somewhat limited. We'll get a chance to talk soon, I'm happy for you and your family, stay motivated! Robert Epps

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