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Timing, Grace and a Dedicated Surgical Team

Carl’s Heart Surgery Success

Carl Dobrich had just come home from a football game with his 10-year-old son and was sitting in the family room when his life suddenly turned upside down.

“I felt like somebody hit me on the side of my head with a sledgehammer,” Carl remembers. His wife looked at him and asked if he wanted to go the hospital, but he couldn’t speak. The Mokena, Illinois, couple quickly drove to their local hospital’s emergency department where the 54-year-old retired Illinois State Police captain was given a prolonged battery of tests. Twenty-four hours later, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

“My lower aorta was dissecting, and I needed surgery, but they didn’t have anyone there to do it. So they rushed me by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital,” Carl says. “When I got there, everything happened so fast; I was met by a giant staff of surgeons. I think I ended up at Northwestern by the grace of God.”

A Surgical Emergency

That team of physicians quickly realized that the upper part of his aorta was dissecting as well — a much more complicated and life-threatening condition because it affected the arteries that went to his brain. Carl was in surgery for the next 18 hours with S. Christopher Malaisrie, MD, a cardiac surgeon with Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. “Carl had an acute type A aortic dissection that had extended into the aortic arch,” Dr. Malaisrie explains. “When the aorta next to the arch is involved, it’s a surgical emergency with a 20 percent mortality rate. This was an even more difficult case because the arch and the brain vessels were also affected.”

Carl spent three weeks in the Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “I had tubes coming out of every part of my body. My wife told me I looked like I was in a spaceship,” he laughs.

Paying It Forward

Throughout his stay, many physicians came to his bedside with groups of medical students interested in his case. “I have a unique heartbeat, and [the physician instructors] thought the students should listen to my heart. So it was not just a recovery time, but a teaching session for doctors,” Carl says. “I was fine with that because these people saved my life, and I was glad if I could prevent what happened to me from happening to anybody else.”

After he went home, even with the daily assistance and support of his wife and four children, Carl says his first year of recovery was difficult. “I couldn’t walk, couldn’t write my name — I had to start from scratch,” he explains. Still, Carl believes that he got the best possible care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and advises anyone facing a similar serious heart ailment to seek out “a qualified surgeon who’s seen this before.”

Dr. Malaisrie specializes in aortic valve replacements, particularly through minimally invasive procedures. He says he expects to perform a growing number of “mini-valve” replacements, as well as aortic valve stenosis repairs, in the near future.

“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” Carl says. “But it wasn’t my time yet. I was one of the lucky ones. I met many excellent physicians, and I felt very well-cared-for.”