Each Christmas Eve, Don Heydens and his wife, Ellen, reflect on what could have been the last night of Don’s life. He’s been marking the anniversary of his descending thoracic aortic aneurysm for 10 years now and each time, he counts his blessings that he’s alive.
On Christmas Eve 2004, Don returned from a relative’s home and found he had plenty of gift-wrapping to do, keeping him up later than normal. For this, he is grateful. “I began to lose feeling in my hands and feet, then in my legs and arms,” he says. “If I had gone to bed, I may not have been aware of what was happening.” Don called his sister, a registered nurse, who understood the severity of his condition and advised him to call 911 immediately.
A devastating diagnosis
Don found out he had severe damage to his aorta complicated by two aneurysms, including a descending aortic aneurysm, which branches into the thoracic and abdominal aorta. He was immediately implanted with a shunt as a temporary procedure for his descending aneurysm, the more severe of his two aneurysms.
But his life would depend on additional treatment and his case was sent across the country for an aortic treatment plan that would help. Don did research on many hospitals throughout the country and after considering several, decided on the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center. “U-M gave me the best chance for success,” he says.
What is an aortic aneurysm?
A thoracic aortic aneurysm is an aneurysm in the part of the aorta in the chest, situated above the diaphragm, a muscle that helps you breathe. Thoracic aortic aneurysms can rupture and lead to severe internal bleeding and result in death. In addition to the descending aorta, aneurysms can form in the ascending aorta and the aortic arch. Unfortunately, only half of all people who have any of these thoracic aortic aneurysms notice any symptoms.
Don had no symptoms associated with his condition. He worked out, played most sports and golfed. “It was a total surprise,” he says.
Part of Don’s treatment plan, determined by U-M cardiologists Dr. G. Michael Deeb and Dr. Himanshu Patel, included replacing Don’s aortic root, ascending and total arch aorta with an elephant trunk anastomosis, a type of procedure used for extensive aortic aneurysms.
The surgery, performed in 2007, was a success. After months of recuperation, Don was feeling close to 100 percent. He underwent his second surgery to repair the aneurysm in his stomach in 2008. Today, monitored on a regular basis, his only restriction is to avoid weight training or lifting more than 30 pounds.
“It was a pleasure being a team member in the care of Mr. Heydens,” says Dr. Patel. “His smile on his first office visit back following a quick recovery from surgery was tremendously gratifying to see.”
Don, now 44, is back to work as a project manager for an engineering firm’s seat belt and airbag design division. Coincidentally, he says, “The elephant trunk is made out of a similar material as the products we use on the job every day.”
Don credits U-M for getting him back to good health and back to work. He’s working to save lives and is “thankful for the life-saving expertise at U-M.”
Take the next step:
- Link to a video about Don Heydens’ story.
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.