Home » What It Feels Like To Have Your Aorta Explode And Almost Die

What It Feels Like To Have Your Aorta Explode And Almost Die

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Okay, I’ll come clean: that headline is not really medically accurate in any way, and yet, somehow that’s exactly what happened to me. Or at least that’s what it felt like. What technically happened is that a few weeks ago I was one of the unlucky 30-per-million people every year who decide to dramatically rend their aortas – the big main hose taking blood from the heart to feed all of your body’s equipment – in a process called an aortal dissection.

Of the many and wildly varied things I learned from this whole mess, one of them is that there don’t seem to be many first-hand accounts of aortal dissections online. So I’m going to tell you all about mine. Because I also learned that this peculiar relationship we have – between me and you, yes, you– is very important to me, and I want you to know the truth about as much as you can stand to hear. So, get ready to roll your eyes at my over-dramatizing and grimace at the sheer biological grossness of it all, because I’m not going to hold back.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

What Happened

It was a pretty normal Monday night, before it became very abnormal. The kiddo was on his VR headset, hanging out with some friends in some virtual whatever and making noises that sounded like Tuvan throat singing, but that was normal. My wife was at a friend’s house, and I was wrapping up work, and just did un-shocking stuff like have a lovely phone call with a friend and walked the dogs, which included a bit of running, because we have a new puppy who is, of course, a loon. Again, normal stuff!

I was down in my basement lair, wrapping up work stuff and putting my computer to sleep, grabbing my iPad to do some member birthday drawings and about to head upstairs. Right as I put my system to sleep, I felt this strange bursting sensation in my chest. It rapidly changed from a peculiar burst to what I can only describe as a sphere of pain, fuzzy on the borders but rapidly expanding inside my chest.

Heartandaorta

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The pain sphere, which I imagined as a deep red thing, blurry on the edges, sort of like how we often illustrate stars when they become red giants. This glowing, pulsating sphere of pain then dropped, rapidly and determinedly, into my abdomen. At that moment my jaw began to hurt.

Something was very wrong.

Somehow I made it upstairs, which wasn’t easy, because the pain was so intense that it was difficult to focus on things and, you know, walk. My body wasn’t working quite like it normally does, and in my mind I saw my body’s dashboard lighting up like the Vegas strip, every light coming on and the check engine light not just on, but blinking rapidly, demanding attention. My mind was all warning lights and needles firmly nestled in the red part of the gauge and buzzers and klaxons announcing that things were going very, very awry.

Mebot Emer

Like an idiot, I found myself Googling “chest pain abdominal pain and jaw pain meaning” and a lot of similar combinations to try and figure out what was going wrong, like I might be able to do something about it myself. I texted “I’m having a medical thing” to my wife, and based on how I normally treat medical things (specifically, I ignore them with the sort of idiotic unearned confidence of a true dipshit), she knew that this was A Big Deal.

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I was also terrified, financially, of doing something like taking an ambulance, because, well, you know how America works. Here, people in medical peril actually consider waiting for a ride instead of taking an ambulance–unlike the rest of the world, where ambulance is the default first, best choice.

My wife, Sally, who was on her way back home, was thankfully less stupid than me, and insisted I call 911 and get an ambulance to the house, stat.

[Ed note: I have a really good friend who is an ER doctor and as soon as he saw the scar he was like “Thank God for Sally” because the type of aortic issue that Jason had doesn’t give you very much time – MH]

At this point, I was feeling deeply weird. The abdominal pain was intense, and it was getting difficult to focus on things, visually. My eyes felt like they were no longer under full control of my brain, and my limbs seemed to be enjoying some independence as well. Moving was difficult. My brain seemed to have entered some sort of Safe Mode, where I was processing actions one by one and only capable of doing things slowly, methodically. It was very strange.

Sally arrived home and found me on our son’s bed, (he was upstairs, still being a goofball in some virtual space, and that’s good – I did not want him to see me like this) confused and in a lot of pain. I was on the phone with 911, and they told me to chew an aspirin, in case this was a heart attack, which it, spoiler alert, wasn’t.

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Help Arrives

Soon the paramedics arrived, dodging the Changli parked on the walkway in front of my house, carrying with them some genuinely impressive hardware that, were I in a different state, I’d have wanted to scrutinize until someone firmly reminded me that, hey, we have real work to do. But I wasn’t in anywhere near that state.

The paramedics were incredibly capable and competent, doing tests and taking what I think was a chest X-ray in a remarkably small unit, assessing what the hell was going on with me. I’m not certain if they decided then that what was happening was an Aortic Dissection, but whatever they figured was going on, they decided that I needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible, so I was loaded onto a stretcher, commemorated in this photo:

Screen Shot 2023 11 29 At 11.55.38 Am

I’m amazed how, well, normal I look in this picture. I’m making a “jeez, what a lot of fuss” face there, but the truth is inside, I was barely hanging on. I felt like I was controlling my body from a distance, via remote control, having been ejected from my usual driver’s seat because the cabin was filling with smoke.

Also, RIP my Volkswagen Beetle shirt, which I think was about to be cut off me. I miss that shirt.

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From this point on, things start to get really strange.

I remember being in the ambulance, and I recall thinking about how fascinating these vehicles are, but I couldn’t really focus on any details because my vision was behaving very oddly. My field of vision was getting dark at the edges, and it was hard to actually look at things. My ability to focus as I normally did was gone, and the pain was quite intense. I felt like I was on some sort of square platform, which makes no sense, and then, somehow, I think I was then in the emergency room, on another square platform, which still makes no sense, and I was writhing around, getting more and more confused, feeling more disconnected feeling from my body.

I don’t want to be too dramatic here, but at this moment I really felt like systems were shutting down. I felt like my body had thrown a rod, and the engine was still turning even though one of the pistons was poking through a hole in the block. Oil was leaking everywhere, every warning light is on, and now things are starting to really break.

Was this what dying feels like?

Let’s Talk Aortic Dissections

Let’s pause here for a moment to explain exactly what was going on inside my chest, this Aortic Dissection. This isn’t a heart attack, as it doesn’t really directly affect the heart: it’s affecting the big hose that carries blood from the heart to all the organs and other important bits. The word “dissection” here is a bit confusing because we normally associate it with the careful disassembly of a funny-smelling preserved frog or something like that but what it really refers to is what is going on inside the aorta.

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What’s going on inside is a lot like what happens to that lousy German fuel line that’s rubber on the inside and braided fabric on the outside; the inner liner of the aorta separates, and that makes a gap between the inner part of the aorta and the outer, uh, skin, and then blood flows in there, where it’s not supposed to go, and eventually that causes swellings of blood that rupture and burst and then there’s a whole mess of blood not going where it needs to go and everything goes to shit. Here’s a video that shows the whole process:

In my case, I was told the aorta tear went all the way down to my kidneys, so the whole length of the aorta was dissected/torn. That’s why I felt the pain drop into my abdomen, I think. But let’s get back to my exciting evening!

Pants Shitting And Other Excitement

As I writhed on that table, my chest and abdominal pain continued, and, horrifyingly, my bowels decided that they were done holding anything inside, so as I squirmed there on the table, I shit myself. Lavishly. It just sort of happened, my intestines letting go and a remarkably generous amount of waste filled my poor pants, in such quantity and with such force that you’d think it was the finale for a Broadway show called Pantshitter! It was awful and embarrassing, and whatever dignity I had left was ejected into those pants along with all that rich, creamery feces.

Emt Dying

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Incredibly, it gets worse. There was a very cross EMT or perhaps nurse or doctor or someone there with me, who was yelling at me or about me, and she removed my waste-filled pants, an act that I’m certain that person was not paid nearly enough to do.

Once my pants were off, I instinctively moved my hands to cover my junk, because, you know, I have over 50 years of life experience that has trained me to not show my junk in public, but as I did so the nonplussed EMT or whomever yelled at me “TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF YOUR PENIS!”

I was confused. What? Then I heard it again: “HANDS OFF YOUR PENIS!”

I’m getting yelled at for having my hands on my junk? What is this, Trader Joe’s? No! Does this person think I’m going to have one last wank before dying on that table? It was bizarre, but I was in no position to argue, so I abandoned modesty and moved my hands.

The edges of my vision were a strange pattern of blackness, an unexpectedly pixellated sort of darkness, and what remained in the middle was getting increasingly fuzzy. I was laying there, mostly naked, having just shat myself with the ruthless abandon of an animal, and something was still going very wrong inside my chest and abdomen. If there’s any moment that sums up what an aortic dissection is like, this is perhaps it.

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The Cooling Down And Surgery

After this point, there’s not much I remember, as I was anesthetized in preparation for surgery, which included cooling my body temperature down to something in the 70s, a process I’m very happy to not have been awake for (it’s known as hypothermic circulatory arrest, and lets the heart stop pumping without cellular damage). I was told this process took longer than usual, something I like to attribute to either my warm heart or hot, humid sexuality, perhaps a combination of both. Or, it could be some metabolic weirdness caused by my near-constant intake of Diet Cokes.

I went into a three-hour-long surgery where a Gore-Tex and Dacron sleeve was used to replace the damaged part of my aorta – thankfully my valves were okay, which I’m told is good because the artificial ones just aren’t as good as the OEM ones.

After surgery came a full week in the ICU, where I was barely awake and an absolute octopus of tubes and wires. As I gradually was able to be more alert and active, I remember drinking some cold apple juice and every sense I had going into overload with the achingly intense pleasure of it all, the sweetness, the coolness, the wetness, the everything. If there’s more of this in life, then I want to live, dammit! Being in ICU gives you an ability to appreciate little things more than countless self-help books about mindfulness or whatever.

I also had intense hiccups for days straight, and they were so persistent and violent they made breathing incredibly laborious. The doctors thought the tubes draining fluid from my body were irritating my diaphragm, and let me tell you, those hiccups were terrible. For several nights I had to work to take each breath, and that’s no fun. Hiccups aren’t the innocent, good-time brother of the burp they like to let on to be. They can be evil, breath-stealing monsters if they choose to be.

Post-Heart Explosion Thoughts

If I took any one thing away from this whole experience, which may have included a near-death component, it’s that people are wonderful. Not all people, I suppose, but the people who seem to be in my life, the ones who reached out, the ones who set up that GoFundMe to help with the medical expenses, the ones who sent recovery stuff, like potent yet gentle packs of ass-wipes, the ones who texted and called and made me feel cared about and loved, even though for most of these people we’d only interacted online, and only talked about cars.

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If more proof was needed that car people are, somehow, the kindest and most welcoming and supportive group of people joined by a common interest, then I think we settled that here. I’m humbled by the vast amount of kindness shown to me, a karmic debt I likely can never repay. It’s beautiful and something I’m never going to forget. It’s also a wonderful motivation for me to heal, so I can get back to writing ridiculous things about cars and deep, important works about taillights, the most significant of human endeavors.

The suddenness and unexpectedness of this whole nightmare isn’t lost on me. Everything could have just ended, right then and there, with no warning, no hints, no nothing. And there’s so much more I want to do in life! Life, for all its difficulties, most of which I feel like I’ve created for myself, is such a rich and dazzling and wonderful thing, complicated and beautiful and chaotic and rewarding and so full of messy, confusing love, in so many ways, reaching out to so many things, people and animals and concepts and, yes, cars, ridiculous wonderful cars that we write about here, that peculiar wheeled thing that has brought so many of us together in the first place.

It all has value and merit and is all capable of inspiring feelings of joy, and I love this absurd business of living, interacting with all the people I do every day, all of whom I think I love more than I even realize, and I am not remotely ready to give it up.

I’m not exactly an observant Jew, really, but one thing I’ve always liked about Judiasm is the strangely pragmatic approach to the afterlife. Judiac eschatology as I grew up understanding it was that after you die, you rot in the ground. It’s hardly a romantic or inspiring notion, but it sure does make this life we know we have more important.

This is it! This is all we get! There’s no point in planning for some afterlife because who the hell knows if there’s anything there? And that’s okay, because what we have here has so much potential, is such a rich and wildly varied array of experiences, and it’s worth cherishing. I’m so happy I get to keep going, experiencing this life.

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My meds are kicking in and making it tricky to string together thoughts, but I think you get the idea. Aortic dissections, in case I wasn’t clear, suck, deeply and powerfully, and I hope no one reading these words gets within miles of one. I hope my likely inadequate description gives enough of an idea to sate your curiosity, and that is as close as you ever get to having your heart’s main hose explode.

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Steve Mirson
Steve Mirson
3 months ago

Jason, just wanted to wish you speedy recovery. This is a story of horror and amazing skills and kindness of the people who saved your life. Good luck and wishing your the best!

Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
3 months ago

Is a predisposition hereditary? (Any family history? Any implications for Otto?)

Brrrrrrrrrr
Brrrrrrrrrr
3 months ago

I signed up for Velour just prior to the incident and was worried my ridiculous birthday car request had been the origin for Torch’s meltdown.

I was down in my basement lair, wrapping up work stuff and putting my computer to sleep, grabbing my iPad to do some member birthday drawings 

But now i’m sure of it. Sorry for almost killing you, Torch. Glad you’re on the mend!

THE ROADWORTHY
THE ROADWORTHY
3 months ago

I’m glad you are on the mend, Torch. Take care of yourself.

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
3 months ago

Holy crap. In 1977, my grandpa was driving back to Michigan with my gramma. Chrysler Town & Country, towing a 30ish foot Airstream, cuz it’s a car site. My gramma looks over at my grampa and he’s holding onto the wheel, head resting on the top of it, utterly not responsive. she got the car stopped and a couple days later, we lost him, despite the best efforts of the local medical teams.

When I read that you’d had one of these, I’m so happy you fared better than my grampa.

I’ll also say that having been through a few horrid events like this, they can be a good way for us to remind ourselves of what’s really important and what really warrants our time investments.

Heal well. I’m so happy for your family that this wasn’t worse.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
3 months ago

Late to this, and glad that you and your family got the holiday gift (a living, breathing Torch) that gives the whole year round.

And if you’re going to shit yourself, might as well do it lavishly.

Eugene Pak
Eugene Pak
3 months ago

Hi Jason, welcome to the club. I survived my thoracic dissection in 2016. I was home alone and stretched and felt a railroad spike being hammered in my chest; I thought I tore a back muscle. I remember being very dizzy and I forced myself not to sleep in my chair. Wife came home a few hours later, and when I told her about my pain, she asked if I wanted to go to the hospital… I said no, I’m going to pop some tylenol and go to sleep. 24 hours, and the pain isn’t clearing, so around 11pm on a Friday night, we head to the ER. They immediately did an EKG which came up all sorts of abnormal, and admitted me. I do remember two things that nite: the ER doc who yelled at me for taking so long to come in so I told him shit, sorry I bothered you, I’ll leave now which shut him up for a bit. The second was the gal in admitting who apologized to me for not being able to take my blood pressure when I first came in. It turned out I was 260/195 so her machine couldn’t register it. If I had waited till the morning, I’d likely have died from a stroke.
A day later I got a 6.5cm dacron/titanium sleeve placed in my upper thoracic aorta right near the ventricle. I spent 11 days in ICU until they could regulate my blood pressure enough to discharge me.
The funny thing is I have a strong medical background, and when the ER doc said aortic dissection, I thought how the f-ck did that happen? I also knew I was very lucky, since traumatic dissections leave about a 30-40% survival rate (working with a coroner’s office teaches you interesting things). Abdominal dissections are worse since there is no way to retain blood volume and pressure if you are bleeding out into your abdomen. You did the right thing getting it called in quickly.
Since then I’ve had two stents put in… it’s likely that I have a genetic predisposition for the dissection, and my wife has turned my diet around. The lifestyle changes have been good, and bad… I can’t scuba or surf since the exertion is too strenuous. I can’t autocross anymore since wearing a fire suit and helmet causes me to overheat too much. But I’m here, and I’m glad that you are too. You will no doubt face different life challenges too. Roll with them. You’re around since there are no coincidences; you have more to offer your family and the world. Rock on Jason!

Turd Ferguson
Turd Ferguson
3 months ago

Long time lurker and Chapel Hill neighbor here. I’m so glad you’re recovering/feeling well enough to write eloquently and humorously about your experience. Can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed devouring your content, from the Jason Drives YouTube series, to the overnight experience in the Volvo big rig, and the appreciation of car brochures from car shows of the era I actually got to attend as a teenager (my parents apparently recycled my 8 or 12 or so collections from *sturdy bags from Hyundai, Mercury, Pontiac, or Honda with closable handles* from the Washington D.C. Auto Show years ago). I work at UNC Hospital and I am simultaneously ashamed and unsurprised at your hesitation in calling for an ambulance, and I hope the financial penalties for doing the correct thing are not too horrendous. Please take time to rest and recover, and follow the advice of your care team. BTW, the nurse was probably only yelling at you because he or she needed to place a foley catheter. Pretty standard, not sure why the yelling was necessary, but everyone has bad nights.

FunkyTrunks
FunkyTrunks
3 months ago

Anything for some good content, huh Torch? 😉

What a well-written story, we’re all very grateful to read it from your fingertips, instead of the alternative.

Thank you for years of eclectic journalism, and for letting us follow along with some of your crazy adventures. We look forward to more years of ‘em, so take good care and enjoy every second of your recovery time.

Jim Zavist
Jim Zavist
3 months ago

Sounds a bit like my brother, at least up to the checking Google part. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. If nothing else, the takeaway should be to call 911, and not to second guess that your body is trying to tell you something is eff’ed up.

lastwraith
lastwraith
3 months ago

As a person with a connective tissue disorder, I really appreciate your personal writeup of this event, as it’s not impossible that your words of warning will inform my future.
As yet another random internet stranger who loves your esoteric articles and this site at large….. I’d like to also express my selfish happiness that you’re still around to write ridiculous articles about things on cars that I’ve never even thought about before, to say nothing of sticking around for your family and other loved ones.
Welcome back Torch!

Anyunusedusername
Anyunusedusername
3 months ago

I just wanted to join the paddock and wish you the best possible recovery and ongoing health.

All the love you guys engender is well deserved by giving voices to our shared enthusiasm of these endearing (and sometimes infuriating) machines and our relationships with them.

I am extremely grateful to have the chance to read more of your work in the future. All our best to you and your family as you continue to recover!

Ok_Im_here
Ok_Im_here
3 months ago

You are the third person I’m aware of to have one of these when they were relatively young. Take care. The other two people I know had long recoveries. In every instance so far it was someone else stepping in to make sure that 911 was called in a timely manner which saved their life. I’m glad you are alive and ok. Please take care of yourself and I hope you have a successful recovery.

Is Travis
Is Travis
3 months ago

I know I’m late, but I have also been reading your stuff for a long time, since around when you started at the other site, and had to chime in when I got back to a logged in browser. I’m sure you are reading all these.
This was the physically most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt reading an article, I don’t know how to say that is a compliment, but it really is a testament to both your writing and the severity of the situation. The real gravity. The description of the event was so damned viscerally horrible I still have knots in my gut thinking about it.
Anyways, glad you made it, what a harrowing ordeal. Man that was effing close.

Last edited 3 months ago by Is Travis
Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
3 months ago

I’m so glad that you’re still with us. And that you weren’t afraid of the 6 figure ambulance ride, because god forbid you choose to forgo a hospital visit because of the bill. That also reminds me, I should set up an appointment with my doc soon.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
3 months ago

Hey, I’m just some random dude on the internet, but I’m really, REALLY glad you didn’t die.

Charlie Burmood
Charlie Burmood
3 months ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

I agree with Angry Bob

B D
B D
3 months ago

This was so well written Jason. I’m sorry you had to have a near-death experience and $hit yourself to produce top-tier content but it’s a powerful reminder and really hit home.

I laughed at the nurse (my money is on it being a nurse because my mother was a lifelong nurse and would have reacted exactly the same way) losing her shit at you losing your shit. There’s at least one or two cranky nurses on every floor, but don’t take it personally – they’ve seen it all, been berated by patients and doctors, been spat on, shat on and had people threaten their lives and it’s made them battle-hardened. But beneath the shell they’re exactly the types that you want to help you in a crisis because they get $hit done (literally in your case, sorry!) and know how to save lives.

So glad you’re on the mend buddy and one question coming from a 43 year old who hasn’t taken good care of himself and is looking for inspiration – what does life look like now in terms of changing habits? Did the doc tell you that any of it was lifestyle/diet related or were you just a really unlucky sod in this case?

Great to have you back – ease into it please!

Ron888
Ron888
3 months ago
Reply to  B D

Ive met those nurses! They’re the ones telling me (truthfully as it happens) that i’m a wimp and i dont know real pain

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
3 months ago

Jason, my man, not afraid of describing, down to the most minute detail, of his violent pantscrappery, after his aorta attempted to yeet itself out of the body on its own, rib cage be damned. Also, because I have the bro-love for Torch, I attempted to write the previous sentence with as many appropriate commas as possible. Finish getting better soon my man, and get some more rest. We’ll wait.

Danger Ranger
Danger Ranger
3 months ago

So glad you are on the mend! Thank you for sharing this experience with the rest of us, including the “lavishly” embarrassing parts. Best wishes for continuing improvement! Be sure to get plenty of rest and let your body heal.

Andy Tarnoff
Andy Tarnoff
3 months ago

Jason, we’ve only spoken once or twice on the phone, and I’m still excited to work with you and David someday. It will be more gratifying if you remain alive to do so. You make automotive journalism a pleasure to read, and we share an affinity for weird taillights. I’m glad you remain among the living. The best is yet to come. Please recover at your own pace and stay hilarious.

Mike P
Mike P
3 months ago

Awesome to hear you’re on the mend Jason. Also, I’m really glad Otto got to keep his dad around for a while longer. I lost mine at 18 and even though we had what at best and charitably could be described as a ‘troubled’ relationship it was still rough. So at least he’s spared that. Like so many others, I’m definitely looking forward to many more years of your delightful weirdness.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
3 months ago

Wow. I don’t really have the proper words to describe how glad I am that you’ve survived and have all your faculties still. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I hope to never have anything like it happen to myself or my loved ones!

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