I remember the day well – standing in front of the TV in sad, shocked, silence as the announcer told us that John Ritter, American actor and star of Three’s Company, had passed away suddenly. A lot of celebs had passed away, but John’s death was on the same level as that of Princess Diana – you just knew that we had lost somebody amazing. We still feel that loss today, but MORE than that – John Ritter still makes us laugh today. In my own family, we have spent most of this year laughing at Jack Tripper as we rediscovered Three’s Company and all his other work. Well – I rediscovered it, my children discovered it for the first time. And when, like me, and like my son, you struggle with issues such as depression and social anxiety and you suddenly find solace and peace in the work of someone who just makes you LAUGH, you want to give something back.
It’s with this in mind that I contacted the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health. I wanted to know more about the heart defect which had taken him from us, but I also wanted to see if there was some way that I in South Africa could say thank you. I seem to remember hearing that John Ritter once said that he would like to find a cure for a disease, and the best way of saying thank you is by spreading word about aortic health.
I’m immensely grateful (and star struck!) to receive such wonderful information as has been provided to us by John’s wife Amy Yasbeck – star of Problem Child, Wings, and many others, author of Live with Love and Laughter, and founder of The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health.
What is aortic dissection?
Aortic dissection is a serious condition in which there is a separation of the aorta walls. The small tear can become larger. It can lead to bleeding into and along the wall of the aorta, the major artery carrying blood out of the heart. When it leaves the heart, the aorta first moves up through the chest toward the head (the ascending aorta). It then bends or arches, and finally moves down through the chest and abdomen (the descending aorta). Aortic dissection most often happens because of a tear or damage to the inner wall of the aorta. Aortic dissections are often preceded by an enlargement of the first part of the aorta where it comes out of the heart, called an aortic aneurysm. If you have an aneurysm, you are at increased risk for an aortic dissection.
What symptoms should people look for and are there any immediate steps a person can take if they think they are having an aortic dissection?
Severe pain is the #1 symptom. Seek immediate emergency medical care for a sudden onset of severe pain in the chest, stomach, back or neck. The pain is likely to be sharp, tearing, ripping, moving or so unlike any pain you have ever had that you feel something is very wrong. Thoracic aortic dissection is a medical emergency. The death rate increases 1% every hour the diagnosis and surgical repair are delayed. Aortic dissection can mimic heart attack. Heart attacks are far more common than aortic dissection. But if a heart attack or other important diagnosis is not clearly and quickly established, then aortic dissection should be quickly considered and ruled out, particularly if a patient has a family history or features of a genetic syndrome that predisposes the patient to an aortic aneurysm or dissection. Get the right scan to rule out aortic dissection. Only three types of imaging studies can identify aortic aneurysms and dissections: CT, MRI and transesophageal echocardiogram. A chest X-ray or EKG cannot rule out aortic dissection.
Is there a genetic connection? Have any other of John Ritter’s family been tested or assisted after his death, and did any of his ancestors have it?
Certain genetic syndromes put you at risk. These genetic syndromes greatly increase your risk for thoracic aortic disease and a potentially fatal aortic dissection: Marfan syndrome, Loeys-Dietz syndrome, Turner syndrome and vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Bicuspid aortic valve disease puts you at risk. If you have a bicuspid aortic valve (two leaflets instead of the typical three), or have had a bicuspid aortic valve replaced, you need to be monitored for thoracic aortic disease.A personal or family history of thoracic disease puts you at risk. If you or a family member is living with an aneurysm or if you have a family member who has had an aortic dissection, you are at an increased risk for thoracic aortic dissection. You and your other family members should be evaluated to determine if a predisposition for aortic aneurysm and dissection is running in the family. John’s brother Tom Ritter had surgery in 2007 to replace a portion of his aorta. His knowledge of the disease and the familial link saved his life. It is believed that their father Tex Ritter, well known as the Singing Cowboy, may have suffered a dissection.
What causes an aortic dissection – are there any dietary or lifestyle choices that are connected to it?
Lifestyle and trauma can trigger aortic dissection. It is possible to trigger an aortic dissection through injury to the chest, extreme straining associated with body building, illicit drug abuse, poorly controlled high blood pressure or by discontinuing necessary blood pressure medications. Rarely, pregnancy can trigger an aortic dissection. However, women with aortic aneurysms and connective tissue disorders who are pregnant are at higher risk of aortic dissection during late pregnancy and delivery and should be carefully monitored by a cardiovascular specialist. Medical management is essential to preventing aortic dissection. If you have thoracic aortic disease, medical management that includes optimal blood pressure control, aortic imaging and genetic counseling is strongly recommended. Talk with your physician.
Where can people find out more about aortic dissection?
John had an eye condition – a coloboma. What is this and is there any connection between this and his heart condition?
The shape of his pupil was due to a childhood injury and was not an eye condition in his case. So no relation to his Aortic Dissection.
How can people support the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health?
Go to the website and learn all you can. Make a donation if that is appropriate for you and your family. The awareness you spread about Familial Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm and Dissection saves lives.
Is there anything else you would like to draw our attention to?
Just keep the families of those who have lost loved ones in your thoughts and prayers. We are a dedicated community of people seeking to change the perception of a too often overlooked and misdiagnosed disease. With the help of the public and the medical community we have changed minds and saved lives. We whole heartedly appreciate your kind attention and your willingness to help us with our mission.
Thank you soooooo much for this opportunity,