ANCHORAGE (KTUU) He was a community leader and family man. Hundreds gathered last week to remember the late Senator Chris Birch, whose celebration of life took place at Hilltop Ski Area.
How to prevent a torn aorta.
Birch was a member of both the Anchorage and Fairbanks assemblies and many other groups over the years. He served in the Alaska legislature as a representative, and as a state senator in 2019. His tragic and sudden death of what the family says was a "normal" day, that is until the 68-year old started to experience chest pains.
Those pains didn't turn out to be a heart attack, but it was a ruptured aorta that ultimately took his life. Senator Birch's sudden death prompted Channel 2 to speak with a cardiologist to learn if there are preventative measures you can take.
The aorta is the largest vessel in your body and its job is to pump blood to the rest of your body. A torn aorta means it dilates and ruptures over time. Interventional Cardiologist, Dr. Stanley Watkins of the Alaska Heart and Vascular Institute said most of the time before the aorta tears, a person is completely asymptomatic, meaning there are no warning signs or symptoms of the problem.
"We do about, I don't know 1,000 or 1,300 or so a year here at Alaska Heart Institute and we pick up a lot of asymptomatic aneurysms. If you pick up an asymptomatic aneurysm you can treat it. There's a myriad of treatments to prevent the aortic rupture, but if you don't know it's happening you can't do anything about it and that was the case with Senator Birch," said Dr. Watkins.
Over time a torn aorta slowly grows to a certain size, then ruptures, which means it gets a hole in it and blood leaks out. The only way to prevent it is to identify it before it occurs. Dr. Watkins said that can be with some sort of imaging like an ultrasound, MRI, CAT or CT scan.
"The main thing is get screened you know if the screening turns positive, we have all sorts of minimally invasive options to treat aneurysms. In the setting of a rupture, we can do a lot, but 80 percent of people who rupture, don't survive. If you are identified before a rupture, we can almost take that completely off the table," he said.
If the aorta tears, some symptoms might include severe chest pains, sudden severe abdominal pain, shortness of breathe, leg paralysis or leg pain.
The number one risk factor for having an aneurysm is smoking, so it's recommended people get screened after the age of 65 if they've ever smoked a cigarette.
Repairing a torn aorta, if caught can involve open-heart surgery or the less invasive procedure involves threading catheters.
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