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How Complex Aortic Surgery at Crozer saved Donald Peyton’s Life

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By Mary Wascavage

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Morton resident and SEPTA bus operator Donald Peyton suffered a ruptured aorta in Jan. 2016.

Imagine a medical emergency so severe that you have hours to live. Would you understand what’s happening? What would you do? Morton resident and SEPTA bus operator Donald Peyton lived through just such a scenario, and thanks to his quick action – and the skill of Crozer-Keystone’s cardiothoracic surgery team – he’s alive to talk about it today.

On January 8, 2016, Peyton, 50, was going through his day’s normal paces. “I was just sitting in a chair, watching the news,” he says. “It was 5:30 in the morning. All of a sudden, I felt tearing from the center of my chest down to my right ankle.” Peyton instinctively knew that something was terribly wrong and that he was experiencing a life-threatening cardiovascular emergency.

Gasping for breath, Peyton called to his wife Lynette. She dialed 9-1-1 and Crozer-Keystone’s paramedic team quickly arrived on the scene. “I told them, ‘I just ripped my aorta,’” he says. Peyton was taken to Springfield Hospital, where he was promptly diagnosed with a dissecting thoracic aortic aneurysm.

Once stabilized, Peyton was transferred to Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where Charles M. Geller, M.D., chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery for Crozer-Keystone Health System, met him in the Emergency Department. “He was calm and very sure of himself,” Peyton recalls. “I knew that this was the guy I wanted to fix me. He was my best shot.”

Geller and his team went right to work on a complex 8-hour surgical procedure. “We cooled Donald’s body to a very cold temperature, then drained all of his blood while preserving brain function – essentially, a ‘science fiction-like’ state of suspended animation,” Geller says. “We then replaced the damaged part of his aorta with a Dacron tube.” Peyton recalls waking up afterwards and thinking, “Is this Heaven? And then I thought, I can’t believe I’m alive!”

Considered a relatively rare occurrence, a thoracic aortic aneurysm is characterized by a bulge in the aorta, the largest artery of the body. If left untreated, the aneurysm can continue to grow until it tears or bursts. The person typically does not have any symptoms until the vessel ruptures, which may result in sudden, severe pain in the chest and/or upper back that can radiate to the neck or legs. It may also cause shortness of breath and loss of consciousness. When this happens, it’s essential to do exactly what the Peytons did – call 9-1-1 and seek immediate treatment at a facility that can surgically treat this emergency medical condition.

The most common risk factors associated with dissecting thoracic aortic aneurysm are high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, an aortic valve defect, certain genetic conditions, and having a family history of the condition. It’s usually found incidentally on imaging tests, such as X-rays and CT scans, for other medical concerns. Peyton was generally in excellent health before he fell ill. He worked out regularly and had no signs or symptoms that would suggest he had a health problem.

Crozer-Keystone’s cardiothoracic program is rooted in decades of clinical excellence. Surgical services range from major aortic procedures to coronary artery bypass, aortic and mitral valve repair and replacement, and the Maze procedure to treat atrial fibrillation. The health system’s Heart Team – consisting of cardiac surgeons, clinical cardiologists, echocardiographers and interventionalists – provides detailed information in easy-to-understand terms to all patients and their families, and involves them in every step of the care plan.

Although their initial encounter with Geller was brief, Peyton, who works in SEPTA’s South Philadelphia Southern District, says that he and his family trusted him. “I believed everything he said; he gave me and my wife confidence,” he says. That trust extends to all the Crozer clinicians who cared for Peyton on that fateful day. “The entire team at Crozer was amazing,” he says.

“I wake up every day thinking that I wish there were more than words to say ‘thank you,’” Peyton adds. “So, thank you, Dr. Geller, for giving me the chance to see my daughter go to high school. Thank you for letting me be there to help my son see his way through the world.

“I appreciate living even more than I did before. Not until you are down to your last five minutes do you realize how much you should appreciate life.”

For more information about its cardiovascular programs, visit crozerkeystone.org/Heart. Call 1-800-CK-HEALTH (1-800-254-3258) to find a cardiologist or cardiovascular surgeon who’s right for you.

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