John Ritter’s widow lost her $67-million lawsuit against the doctors who treated the comedic actor before his death in 2003, but Amy Yasbeck feels she has accomplished her purpose — to educate others about aortic disease.
A Los Angeles jury voted 9-3 in favor of a cardiologist who treated Ritter on Sept. 11, 2003, after he complained of nausea and chest pains on the set of “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter.” A radiologist who had performed a body scan on Ritter two years before he died was also found not liable in the death.
Yasbeck said she will deal with her disappointment the only way she can.
“You go on,” she told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Thursday in New York. “We still believe that these doctors had a hand in what happened to John.”
Going forward, Yasbeck said it is more important that public awareness has been raised about aortic dissection, the condition that killed Ritter, and aortic aneurysm, a related condition. Both involve weaknesses in the aorta, the largest artery in the body, which carries oxygenated blood into the left ventricle of the heart.
Both also mimic symptoms of a heart attack, but require different treatment, which can have fatal consequences, as it did for Ritter.
His death raised consciousness about the conditions, and Yasbeck hopes that will lead to doctors considering the conditions when making diagnoses in emergency rooms.
“In his death from aortic dissection, it raises that awareness to a level where people write me, ‘I went into an emergency room and I said, Make sure you check me for that John Ritter thing.’ They check them for the John Ritter thing, and it’s not a heart attack,” Yasbeck said.
“They’re alive to write me. Our family is thrilled that we can do that. That’s exactly what John would have wanted.”
An aneurysm is a weakness in the aorta that can rupture. A dissection of the aorta is an internal tear in the lining of the blood vessel that can fill with blood, leading to a rupture and death. Both can be surgically repaired if they are discovered.
Symptoms of an aneurysm or aortic dissection can mimic those of a heart attack, which was the diagnosis cardiologist Dr. Joseph Lee made when Ritter was brought in to the emergency room of Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, the same hospital in which he had been born in 1948. The treatments Ritter received for a heart attack exacerbated his aortic dissection and contributed to his death.
Medical experts at the trial argued that the diagnosis of a heart attack was reasonable because heart attacks are far more common than dissections. The hospital itself, in a separate civil suit filed by Yasbeck, paid $9 million for not providing Lee with a current X-ray that might have revealed the condition in time to save Ritter’s life.
Ritter died on the fifth birthday of his and Yasbeck’s daughter, Stella. It was also one day before his wife’s birthday and six days before his 55th birthday and wedding anniversary. As he was wheeled on a gurney to treatment, he signaled to his wife “I love you” in American Sign Language, a mode of communication they had frequently used on stage together.
Yasbeck said that the trial brought together some of the leading cardiologists and thoracic surgeons and radiologists, arguing for both the plaintiff and defendant.
“The most amazing doctors in the world came on both sides,” she told Vieira. “And even though it was a debate, it was also this conversation that was so inspiring to our family because it was what we’ve been talking about for years — let’s get these guys together. So now we can do that outside of a courtroom to talk about disease, aortic research and aneurysms and dissection.”
‘Master class’ debate
She said the assemblage of experts at the trial was extraordinary.
“Everyone was educated. It was amazing,” she said. “I don’t know what you call it in medicine, but in acting or art it would be a master class. The most brilliant minds in the aorta business were there.”
Simple genetic testing can reveal people who are susceptible to aortic dissection. After Ritter’s death, Yasbeck convinced his brother, Tom, to be tested. He discovered that he, too, had the condition, which was surgically repaired.
“This is completely fixable,” Yasbeck said, referring to Tom Ritter’s condition. “They caught it. He’s fine. He’s better than ever.”
Ritter, the son of singing cowboy star Tex Ritter, had appeared on “The Waltons” and on the stage before hitting it big in 1977 in the role of Jack Tripper in the comedy “Three’s Company,” in which he shared an apartment with Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt. The show ran until 1984.
He revived his television career in 2002 as sportswriter Paul Hennessy in “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” the show he was working on when he died.
Yasbeck, who starred in “The Mask,” “Pretty Woman” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” was Ritter’s second wife. He had been married to actress Nancy Morgan from 1977 to 1996.
Several of the jurors at the trial said that they came out with more admiration for the friend, husband and father Ritter had been.
“His legacy is what it always was, which is that he kind of plucked that golden thread that connects everyone,” Yasbeck said. “He was kind of the everyman, but kind of the goofy version of everyman, so everybody related to him.”
Learn more about The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health,by visiting this site.