On a Mission for Her Husband

Cardiology experts gathered in Houston to hear the latest information on the diagnosis and treatment of aortic diseases. They also heard from survivors of a malady that claims a victim every thirty-four seconds in the United States. Pat Hernandez has more.

Except for one year, cardiovascular Disease has been the number one killer in the United States since 1900.

The Houston Aortic Symposium attracted experts in the field of cardiology. Particular emphasis was placed on thoracic aneurysms. Typically, as we get older, the aorta, the very first part of the artery that comes out of the heart, starts to enlarge. That bulging is called an aneurysm.

Doctor Dianna Milewicz directs the division of medical genetics at the UT Medical School in Houston. The internationally known expert says if we don’t surgically fix the bulging, it can lead to an acute aortic dissection, or a tear in aortic wall.

“The estimates are that about fifty-percent of people that have an acute dissection, die immediately, and then, even if you do make it to the hospital, it becomes a surgical emergency to go in and repair it.”

Patty Peterson spoke at the symposium. The Minneapolis jazz singer was driving home from rehearsal when she suffered an aortic dissection. She says she is alive because doctors quickly diagnosed and treated her condition.

“I’m here because I am so grateful, and I want to stand up and tell people, keep on the track that you’re on because you’ve saved me.”

Researchers know that in some patients, the condition is genetic, that they inherit an alteration in their DNA that predisposes them to have an aneurysm. Aided by an 11-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Milewicz’s research is focused on identifying the changes in the DNA.

“If somebody tests positive, then we can watch for aneurysm formation, and once it’s enlarged about twice its normal size, we’ll say, go ahead and have it repaired.”

Also attending the symposium, actress Amy Yasbeck. Her husband, comedic actor John Ritter, died of a dissected aorta.

“If there’s anything that can come out of this tragedy that has a silver lining, it will be that the awareness of aortic dissection and the genetic predisposition will be in the front of people’s minds. Not only when they’re laughing and enjoying John and going ‘Oh God, we miss him’, then they’ll think, wait, because of aortic dissection, ‘what can I do to help?'”

More information can be found by googling “Dianna Milewicz” and at

image of Amy Yasbeck, Patty Peterson, Pat Hernandez, and Dr. Dianna Milewicz

Pat Hernandez, KUHF…Houston Public Radio News.