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Ed Yeates ReportingHollywood is shocked by the surprising loss of television comedian John Ritter. The Emmy award-winning actor died from a dissection of the aorta, the result of a previously undiagnosed flaw in his heart.
What happened to John Ritter was a catastrophic health event. Patients in such cases seldom have any warning. Once the artery wall begins shearing and failing, the victim often dies at the scene. For the few who have survived - Ritter's death hits all too close to home.
In John Ritter's case, all he needed was an injury to the inner wall of his artery to begin the process. Usually, though, victims already have a genetic disorder, which has weakened the connective tissue in the artery.
Curt Bench: "Sent chills up my spine because it sounded like the same thing that had happened to me."
It did happen to Curt Bench three years ago last month. Only in his case, doctors at LDS Hospital caught it just in time.
Curt Bench: "I was just getting ready for bed and I felt a terrible sharp pain in my chest. It felt something almost like it snapped."
And snap it did! Dr. Michael Collins says once the blood flow has made it's way through the injured inner lining, it literally splits the aorta in two. And that's exactly what it feels like.
Michael Collins, M.D., LDS Hospital Cardiac Surgeon: "The patient has a very characteristic complaint of a tearing or ripping sensation within their chest."
There are no prior symptoms until the pain is actually felt as the aorta is dissecting. After that, doctors may have only an hour, perhaps only minutes to make a repair.
Michael Collins, M.D., LDS Hospital Cardiac Surgeon: "This is a woven dacron graft. This now becomes either the patient's ascending or descending aorta."
That is how Collins and his colleagues repaired Curt Bench's failed vessel. The implant was done quickly and is now a permanent fixture.
Curt Bench: "Very sobering - frightening at the time - and makes me very grateful that my life was spared."
So what predisposed Curt to this catastrophic event? Probably his tall, lanky characteristics, much like John Ritter had when he was younger. Dr. Collins says those characteristics are often variations of what is called Marfans Syndrome, an inherited genetic predisposition to a degenerative connective tissue disorder, which weakens the artery wall.