Getting to the heart of the matter

September 05, 2014

P_Cerulo_SU14_1Aortic dissection is rare and difficult to diagnose. With symptoms that mimic a heart attack, misdiagnosis is common. And when a misdiagnosis occurs — as it did for the actor John Ritter in 2003 —the condition is often fatal. For many people, emergency surgery holds the only hope for survival.

Mike Cerulo knows all of that now, but he didn’t in late February, when he found himself experiencing strange symptoms in a hotel room far from home. The Erie, Pennsylvania, man credits a team of caregivers in Waycross and Jacksonville with saving his life.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” says Cerulo. “I’m still here because I had time to seek medical help, and the people who took care of me made quick, effective decisions.”

Cerulo was in Waycross for work on the day that could easily have been his last. It was Feb. 28, a Friday, and he was preparing to leave his hotel room for a walk.

“I stood up and all of a sudden things felt very unclear,” says Cerulo, a health-conscious 62-year-old with no history of heart problems. “It was hard to formulate a thought, and there was a darkness in my vision.”

Cerulo contacted his colleagues who were traveling with him, and the three men headed for the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Health System. Cerulo told staff there he might be having a heart attack.

Soon, Timothy Catchings, M.D., a cardiologist, was evaluating him. An EKG looked normal. Cerulo’s blood pressure and pulse were also normal. After a chest X-ray revealed an enlarged aorta, Dr. Catchings ordered a CT scan of Cerulo’s heart. That image showed a much more serious problem.

“Dr. Catchings told me I’d suffered an aortic dissection and would need to go to Mayo Clinic immediately for treatment,” says Cerulo. He was taken by ambulance to Jacksonville where a team led by Kevin Landolfo, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon, was waiting. 

When Cerulo arrived at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Landolfo delivered some grim news.

“He told me that without surgery to repair the tear I would die, and that only 50 percent of people survived the procedure I needed,” says Cerulo. In spite of the bleak odds, he signed paperwork consenting to the procedure and was taken to an operating room.

Cerulo’s next memory is of waking up in the ICU, surrounded by his wife and two sons who had traveled to Jacksonville to be with him. He’d survived what so many do not.

Cerulo says he felt calm throughout the experience, primarily because of the staff who cared for him.

“I trusted Dr. Catchings and Dr. Landolfo,” he says. “And I knew Mayo Clinic’s reputation, so I knew I was in good hands.”

That belief was reinforced during the week Cerulo and his wife, Beth, spent at Mayo Clinic during his recovery.

“I’m not always a good patient,” says Cerulo. “I can sometimes be cranky and whiny. But everyone treated me with respect, patience and love. I could not have received better care.”

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