New center provides specialized aortic care

By: Kristyne E. Demske | Metro | Published December 8, 2021

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HARRISON TOWNSHIP — It was a day like any other for Harrison Township resident Jim North.

On March 25, 2019, the U.S. Marines veteran was working out in his basement, performing deadlifts, squats, bench presses and other exercises he had done hundreds of times before. He came back to his desk where he worked in information technology and sat down in front of his computer.

“I leaned back in my chair and put my arms above my head and yawned,” he recalled Oct. 25. “As soon as I got upright again, my heart started to beat differently. I knew something was wrong. I waited a few minutes, and then my lower back started to hurt, and then I just felt really weak, and I knew something was wrong.”

His wife, Karen, called him before heading home from work herself, and that’s when he told her that he was feeling funny and was going to head to the hospital. At first, she agreed and said she’d meet him there, but she called back moments later to tell him she had called 911 and an ambulance was on the way to the house.

“I’m pretty sure it would have been a hard time trying to get to the hospital at that point because my back really hurt,” he said during a recent Zoom press conference arranged by Beaumont Health.

The ambulance transported him to a nearby hospital. North said he was only at the hospital for about a half hour before a CT scan showed an aortic dissection, which that hospital did not have the capability to treat.

“I got back in the ambulance, and they took me to (Royal Oak) Beaumont, and that’s when, I guess, Dr. Vivacqua took over,” North said. “I woke up a day, day and a half, maybe the second day later, and that’s when I found out I had an aortic dissection.”

The aorta carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. Sometimes, the walls of the aorta can bulge, which is called an aneurysm, or split, which is called a dissection. This can occur because of trauma, genetic conditions or other issues. Patients can bleed to death, or there can be damage to other organs if an aortic emergency isn’t caught in time.

Dr. Allesandro Vivacqua, medical director of the Beaumont Aortic Center and an expert in surgery for aortic dissection, performed the surgery at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, and it took eight hours. He and his team encased the ruptured section of North’s aorta in a Dacron fabric sleeve, sealing the leak.

Coordinated, timely care is key in an aortic emergency, which is why the new Beaumont Aortic Center benefits patients.

“The idea behind the Beaumont Aortic Center is to bring together different specialists to evaluate and treat patients with aortic disease,” Vivacqua said. “(Aortic dissection is) a very dangerous disease, and it carries a mortality rate of about 50% in the first 48 hours.”

There is no other treatment for aortic dissection, he said, and not all hospitals offer the advanced surgery that Beaumont provides, which is why the health system works with outside hospitals to provide this treatment to their patients. In addition to surgery, the Beaumont Aortic Center provides genetic counseling, cardiovascular and vascular surgeons, interventional radiologists, and other specialists who can treat patients with acute and chronic aortic dissections, aortic aneurysms, aortic trauma, aortic valve disease, and genetically induced aortic conditions, all in one place.

“For the patient, it’s now one stop, and all he needs is here,” Vivacqua said. “We have this coordinated care for our patients, and we can offer it ... every day.”

In addition to supporting the patient, he said the new center provides support for the families during the lengthy, high-risk surgery.

North’s wife, Karen, said she didn’t quite understand the severity of his diagnosis when she was told he had to be taken to Beaumont Hospital.

“I asked the nurse, is what he has life-threatening and she said, yes,” Karen North recalled. “I got in my car and drove over there and got to see him before he went into surgery at Beaumont.”

Vivacqua said the surgery is so complex because aortic dissection can affect every other organ in a patient’s body.

“We are always happy to work together to help the patient to get through this,” he said. “Literally a half an hour can make a difference between life and death.”

That’s why he said it was key that North didn’t wait to seek help.

After his surgery, North spent nine days in the hospital and the next couple of months working to build back his strength and stamina. He was able to return to work after seven weeks.

“Since then, once Dr. Vivacqua and his team fixed me up, I’m just like I was the day before. I’m perfect. I can work out. Dr. Vivacqua has told me I should not overdo what I do now, but aside from that, I feel perfectly fine,” North said.