One evening in June 2019, Chowean Johnson woke about 2 a.m. with sharp chest pains. At first, the 46-year-old thought something he ate caused some serious indigestion. But then he grew worried.
“It just didn’t go away,” he told TODAY. “As time went on, it just got worse.”
He called the emergency room and they recommended he come in to see a doctor. While there, he underwent an X-ray and he learned his aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body, was swollen. Doctors transferred him to Mount Sinai Morningside and explained to Johnson that he had an aortic dissection. This occurs when inner lining of the aorta tears and blood flows between the layers. It causes that artery to swell and can lead to death, sometimes almost immediately.
“It is one of the most severe pains that one can tolerate, aortic dissection” Dr. Gabriele Di Luozzo, director of thoracic aortic surgery at Mount Sinai Morningside, told TODAY. “He had come in with the common symptoms, which are chest and back pain.”
From crisis to ‘going 100 miles-per-hour’
High blood pressure, which Johnson had, is the most common reason aortic dissection develops, just one other reason doctors strive to manage hypertension. According to the Cleveland Clinic other causes include:
- Having an aneurysm
- A build-up of artery plaque
- Conditions, such as bicuspid aortic valve (heart condition) or Marfan syndrome (a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue)
- Family history
While the most common symptom is extreme pain, people can also struggle to breath, feel faint or dizzy, have a weakened pulse or think they’re experiencing a stroke.
Even though Johnson never had any other symptoms or heart problems, he wasn’t exactly shocked by the diagnosis.
“I was really overweight. I wasn’t eating properly. I wasn’t exercising properly. It was bound to happen,” he explained. “At some point, something was bound to happen.”
Johnson lifts heavy objects and walk a lot as an employee at a company that rents lighting and cameras for films and commercials, yet it wasn’t enough activity to keep him fit. After surgery, he lost about 30 pounds and felt better. But, immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Johnson went to a follow-up visit and learned some distressing news.
“I felt good. I thought that everything had worked. I was surprised when he told me that my aorta was still swollen,” Johnson said. “It was frustrating.”
Johnson needed another stent but the pandemic had shut down surgery.
“Although it was concerning that his CT scan was showing expansion, we thought let's hold off,” Di Luozzo said.
Even though Johnson worried about follow-up during a public health crisis, he stuck with his appointments.
“We had telemedicine visits, which we did during the surge, on a weekly basis … to make sure he was doing well and he wasn’t developing any symptoms,” Di Luozzo said.
The virtual checkups allowed the doctors and nurses to keep Johnson safe while managing his condition. As soon as it was safe to resume procedures, Johnson returned to the hospital for a new stent on May 20. Immediately, he felt better.
“I’ve been going 100 miles per hour since I got out of the hospital,” he said. “I feel great. Even after the procedure I felt like I could get up and walk out of the hospital.”
Receiving care during a pandemic
Like others, Di Luozzo has heard of people who think the risk of contracting coronavirus is more serious than receiving treatment for their heart conditions. Many skip regular appointments, which can cause worsened heart health or even death. The American Heart Association has recently launched a campaign called "Don't Die of Doubt," urging people to call 911 if they experience heart attack or stroke symptoms.
“If any patient has a cardiac condition … those patients have to been seen,” he said. “At least once a week, if not maybe a few times a week so we have a real clear understanding that their disease is under control, at least for the time being, and no new symptoms are occurring.”
Johnson briefly wondered what it would be like being in the hospital during the pandemic. He felt safe the entire time.
“I never once worried about the COVID-19 situation,” he said.
“The consequences outweigh the risk. If you have a life-threatening situation and you need to have a procedure done, that is what you should do,” he said. “If you have something like I had you should have the procedure done because at any time you might not wake up one night or you could just be walking down the street and it just could be over.”