February 22nd started out like a typical day for 67-year-old Martin Kerschen, a small-town Kansas farmer and trim carpenter. He awoke at 5 a.m. and, an hour later, was having breakfast when suddenly he began feeling an intense ripping feeling in his upper chest.
His wife, Lila, a retired registered nurse who had served at Ascension Via Christi for 45 years, called 9-1-1. By the time EMS arrived, and four baby aspirin later, Martin's pain had subsided. They urged him to go to the hospital to get it checked out anyway.
Comprehensive care for heart conditions
He was taken to the Ascension Via Christi St. Teresa Emergency Room, west Wichita’s only full-service hospital, where he was quickly seen by a care team led by Thomas Higgins, MD, a board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician with 25 years experience. Dr. Higgins ordered the standard labs and tests for heart screenings, but could find nothing unusual.
"Based on my experience, something didn't add up," said Dr. Higgins. "Although it might not have been anything, our training teaches us to be cautious and thorough."
Dr. Higgins ordered a CT image of Martin's heart, before feeling comfortable to send Martin home.
That decision is something Martin says he will be forever grateful for, as the scan revealed an atypical aortic dissection. This heart condition occurs when a tear in the inner aortic layer that allows blood to enter and further separate the inner and middle layers of the wall of the aorta. It required immediate surgical repair.
Advanced heart care for the rarest heart conditions
Martin was transported by EMS to Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, which is Ascension Via Christi’s center for advanced heart care, where it took Cardiothoracic Surgeons Jordan Groskurth, MD, Bethany Harpole, MD, and Brett Grizzell, MD, six hours to successfully seal the tear in his aorta.
"He had a bruise in the aorta that could have ruptured and caused sudden death if not treated," said Dr. Groskurth. He believes that there are only a dozen aortic dissection cases community-wide as compared to the hundreds of bypass surgeries seen each year.
“A big operation such as this is only possible with a team of people in the room, from the ER to the OR, including doctors, nurses, techs, anesthesia, profusion,” said Dr. Groskurth. “It takes remarkable teamwork, which is why I like to do what I do.”
Compassionate care every step of the way
Martin spent the next 15 days recovering at St. Francis, a stay that was extended waiting on a Chyle fluid leak, a rare complication of this type of surgery, to heal.
Martin said the care he received was exceptional, from housekeeping to nursing to medical staff.
"I felt so much love," he said about his friends, family and care team as well as Lila's former hospital coworkers who checked in on him throughout his stay. "You can't tell my story without mentioning all the love and the power of prayer.”
“I've had a good life and have always been prepared for the end,” he said.
The death of his 16-year-old brother has long served as a reminder that every day is precious and he is grateful to have been given more time to spend with his wife, three sons and three grandkids.
Martin also is thankful for the compassionate care he received at both St. Teresa and St. Francis and for Dr. Higgins' decision to listen to his gut and order the diagnostic imaging that saved his life.
As for Dr. Higgins, he says caring for patients in the ER is a team sport, and that everyone was happy to hear about Martin’s successful surgery and recovery.
"We try to give every one of our patients the best medical care, often with limited information and sometimes under harried circumstances," Dr. Higgins said. "We take our patient outcomes personally."
Don’t delay your yearly heart screening
When you choose Ascension Via Christi, you get an experienced cardiovascular specialist and care team who are part of a national team, sharing best practices and the latest research and treatment. Every appointment starts with a conversation. Your care team takes the time to listen and answer all your questions — so you get a personalized care plan. Learn more about heart care at Ascension Via Christi.