Denise's husband rushed her to the emergency department at a nearby hospital, and she received a series of tests. A CT scan found that Denise's aorta – the heart's main artery that supplies blood to the body – was tearing apart. This often fatal condition is known as aortic dissection. She was quickly transferred by ambulance to The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City for high-level care. Because of the urgent nature of her condition, Denise's care team, which included a team of multidisciplinary specialists, was waiting and ready for her arrival.
"I remember being wheeled into the room, and there were probably 15 people in there," Denise says. "That's when I realized how serious it was."
Aortic dissection is rare but not uncommon among a certain population with specific risk factors. Typically, it is seen in men 60-80 years old who have a history of heart issues or high blood pressure. Denise was an unusual case because she did not have any of the typical risk factors. What's more, she was suffering from type A dissection, which is the most dangerous and fatal form. Unlike type B dissection, which begins at the top of the aorta in the back of the chest and can often be controlled with medication, type A dissection is located in the ascending aorta – a busy route through which all blood leaving the heart travels.
"When blood gets inside the wall of the aorta through a small tear, it shears the layers of the aorta apart," says Jeffrey Kramer, MD, a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon. "It can cause death. It can cause stroke. It can cause many immediately life-threatening problems."