It is estimated that up to 90 percent of people who experience an aortic dissection die before making it to an ER. But 80-year-old Alice Ziccardi is a miracle, her daughter, Jill Ziccardi tearfully declared.
“I don’t remember a thing,” Alice Ziccardi said recently. “I’m just grateful to be alive.”
It was back in 2018 when a routine dermatology appointment showed the elder Ziccardi had high blood pressure, which led to learning she had an irregular heartbeat. After a visit with her cardiologist, she was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, a balloon-like bulge that occurs in the wall of the aorta, the major blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body.
For more than a year, her Nuvance Health doctors, including cardiologist Dr. Sanjaya Jha and Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery Dr. Jason Sperling, monitored her aneurysm, which was far below the size threshold where published guidelines promote pre-emptive surgery.
It wasn’t until May 2019, when Alice Ziccardi was on a trip to Italy, where the touring required strenuous activity including walking some steep inclines, that she began to experience fatigue and leg pain.
A month later, after she was back home in Highland, NY, severe jaw pain was evaluated in two different ERs on the same day without a diagnosis. Finally, she saw her primary care doctor, who sent her back to the Emergency Department at Vassar Brothers Medical Center (VBMC) for an urgent CT scan. The study revealed an aortic dissection, a life-threatening condition in which a tear occurs in the inner layer of the body's main artery, or aorta. Blood rushing through the tear causes the inner and middle layers of the aorta to split. It is often deadly if blood goes through the outside aortic wall.
Dr. Sperling and his team performed emergency surgery at VBMC, a nine-hour procedure that required hundreds of stitches to replace the aorta, including a portion of the aortic arch, he said.
While the surgery went well, Alice Ziccardi suffered innumerable small strokes during and post-surgery. The procedure is associated with obligatory interruption (or reduction) of blood flow to the brain, and because the aorta may be partly filled with blood clots, Dr. Sperling said, there is a higher stroke rate with this type of surgery.
“She was not responsive because she was on loads of meds to suppress seizure activity, which led to her being comatose,” Jill Ziccardi said. “She could not speak or walk. She was now a neuro patient.”
Alice Ziccardi required mechanical ventilation and a feeding tube. She was transferred to a long-term acute care facility to help her recover.
For more than two months, Jill Ziccardi negotiated with the neurologists for her mother’s medications to be lowered, she said. In time, Alice Ziccardi made a full recovery and has returned to living at home on her own.
“I have some residual problems with my eyesight, and I had to give up tennis this year after 56 years which kills me,” Alice Ziccardi said. “But I’m grateful that my life was saved.”
“My mom is a success story. She’s Dr. Sperling’s success story,” Jill Ziccardi added. “He’s a special guy because he kept telling me, ‘Jill don’t give up.’ He was so inspiring and so supportive.”
Jill Ziccardi continues to be a champion for her mom through her work as an artist. Throughout her mother’s recovery, she created “Broken Heart,” a painting that expresses the trauma of open-heart surgery, she explained. It has been shown in galleries in the Hudson Valley, most recently at Limner Gallery in Hudson.
“It’s self-expression, but I want this to be an advocacy piece,” Jill Ziccardi said. “The sum of what I learned is that when you can’t speak for yourself, you need an advocate. I want people to know not to give up.”
Learn more about aortic disease and treatments at Nuvance Health.
This story is one patient’s experience, recounted here for educational and general informational purposes only.