Penn Medicine News Blog: Archives

November 16, 2012 // By Jessica Mikulski // Comments

A Runner's Heart Healed

Heart // Patient Stories // Surgery Share this article


Penn patient Elliot Gordon (right) completes a 12k after open-heart surgery
Over the summer, I started training for my first 5K run. I’ve always been running-averse, but it seems like everyone I know has gotten the running bug, so I decided to give it another try. I “trained” using a simple iPhone app and completed the Penn Medicine 5K for the IOA back in September.

I signed up for my second 5K last week, but I’ve been struggling to find the motivation to keep up with my runs. It seems so much harder now that it’s colder and gets dark hours earlier in the evening. But the next time I start to make up a new excuse for why I can’t get my sneakers on, I’m going to remind myself of Penn patient Elliot Gordon, profiled in today’s edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In April 2009, he was training for the Boston Marathon, what would have been his 43rd such race.  But on the morning of April 5, out of the blue, the usually healthy Gordon started to feel dizzy at his home in Princeton Junction, NJ. Within moments, he passed out.

Elliot was suffering from an aortic dissection, the same condition that killed actor John Ritter in 2003. This serious heart condition results from a small tear in the inner wall of the aorta, causing blood to flow between the layers of the wall of the aorta and force the layers apart. If the dissection tears the aorta completely open (through all three layers), massive and rapid blood loss occurs.

After being rushed to a local hospital, it was determined that he needed emergency heart surgery.  He was transferred to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).

At HUP, Joseph Bavaria, MD, vice chief, Division of Cardiovascular Surgery and director, Thoracic Aortic Surgery Program, performed an open-heart procedure to have Gordon’s torn aorta removed and replaced with a synthetic graft.

"He needed an urgent intervention and the surgery itself is high risk," says Dr. Bavaria. "Half of patients suffering from an aortic dissection die before they even reach the hospital." 

Thankfully for Gordon, Dr. Bavaria and the HUP OR team have extensive experience in complex aortic surgeries, with outcomes ranking among the best in the nation. After being rushed from the emergency transport, he was taken directly to the OR, where Dr. Bavaria and his team were able to accurately assess the situation and begin the operation.

His heart was in good hands. Despite the grim odds, after several hours in surgery, he was transferred to the HUP ICU to recover.

“The surgeons said I survived because my body was in such good shape. Had I not been training for Boston, I would have died.”

After a month and a half in the hospital, he was released in May 2009. He was 25 pounds lighter and because he was already so lean from decades of running, there wasn’t much fat to loose in the first place. The loss was all muscle -- he couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk.

He was given the okay to try light running again after six months, but it took over a year before he was finally able to jog slowly. In his first attempts back on a treadmill, he had many difficulties.  But he was determined to get back to the sport he so loved and had dedicated decades of his life to.

On November 20, 2010 he ran his first “return” 8k since the operation. A year later, on November 12, 2011, he ran a 12k race. This weekend, Elliot will take part in the Philadelphia Marathon to run the half marathon.

“Not very many people could, or would even attempt, to run a half marathon after this type of procedure,” says Dr. Bavaria. “His surgery went so well that it enabled him to keep going with his running. He really is a miracle man.”



blog comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to Penn Medicine News Blog by Email




About This Blog