Lifesaving operation can repair the heart before aortic dissection causes unexpected death

Here's what we know

HOUSTON – Aortic dissection is a rare but catastrophic disorder.

According to one Memorial Hermann surgeon, aortic dissection runs in families about 20% of the time.

The condition is when the wall of the aorta weakens and tears, separating the two layers, immediately leading to a number of problems, which can include death.

This is the condition celebrity John Ritter died of in 2003.

Amy Fireck had an aortic dissection at just 34 years old. After emergency surgery, she knew she wanted to do whatever she could to keep her son Ayden from going through the same thing (with a potentially deadly outcome.)

“I just don’t want that for Ayden. I want him to have a brilliant, full, beautiful life,” Fireck said.

To get a surgeon who could operate on the heart and prevent an aortic dissection, the Firecks flew from Georgia to Houston to see Dr. Anthony Estrera. He performs a valve-sparing aortic root replacement.

“The aorta is the sleeve that encompasses all this, we basically replace that and then we took his own valve, his own native aortic valve, re-implanted that,” Dr. Estrera said.

It’s an intense operation with a difficult recovery that can take months to heal.

“They sawed through my ribs, opened me up (and) then cut out the aneurysm and put in a synthetic graft,” Ayden explained.

Amy Fireck said her son bounced back relatively quickly and returned to ROTC at school.

“Within three months, he was back to spinning rifles, throwing them in the air, performing and he came back and assisted his team in coming in the first place,” Amy Fireck said.

Dr. Estrera said before surgery, Ayden probably wouldn’t live past 25 and now he can live a long, healthy life.

“The long-term benefit of having his own valve is the fact that they should last, in my opinion, the rest of his life. So, we fortunately dramatically reduced his risk of having an aortic dissection or death in the future because his primary problem is now fixed,” Dr. Estrera said.

Ayden graduated from high school on Saturday and said he feels like he has a new start in life.

“I am planning to get a bachelor’s in nursing, get my RN, and then continue on and go on to med school and hopefully get an MD,” Ayden said.

“I am beyond the proudest mom in the world. He’s an amazing young man, he’s going to do great things, he’s going to touch the world,” Amy said.

The John Ritter Foundation has more guidelines on aortic health and screenings.