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Aortic Aneurysm Caught in the Nick of Time

Rick Christensen underwent open heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.
A chance meeting with a University of Minnesota Health cardiologist may have saved Rick Christiansen’s life. In 2012, M Health clinical staff discovered an aortic aneurysm, nicknamed the ‘silent killer,’ developing near Christiansen’s heart.

Fate works in funny ways.

Just ask Rick Christensen, who learned he had a life-threatening aortic aneurysm after a chance meeting with a University of Minnesota Health Heart Care cardiologist.

Diagnosed with congenital heart disease, Christensen had open heart surgery in 2000 to repair a defective heart valve. For several years following the surgery, he regularly saw a heart specialist as a precaution—until the doctor told him he was stable and didn’t need to come back.

Fast forward to August 2012, when Christensen attended a backyard barbecue in his former neighborhood. By chance, University of Minnesota Health Cardiologist S. Kimara March, MD, who had recently moved into Rick’s previous home, was out for a walk with her family. The party host invited her to join the party, where March and Christensen met.

“He found out I was a cardiologist at the University and started talking about how he had open heart surgery before and had a valve replaced,” said March, who sees patients at the Adult Congenital and Cardiovascular Genetics Center at University of Minnesota Medical Center.

March learned Christensen wasn't currently seeing any specialists and suggested he visit her for a checkup.

“She said it might be a good idea for me to see somebody, because there are things that can occur, complications that can arise,” Christensen said.

A few days later, Christensen took her up on the offer. At a follow-up appointment, care providers discovered a portion of his aorta, just above his replacement valve, had ballooned out from 3.6 cm to more than 5 cm in width.

If left unattended, Christensen’s arterial walls would have grown weaker as the aneurysm expanded. Eventually, the walls would tear.

"I don't to go church a lot, but I am spiritual. I believe enough that I think everybody has their time, and somehow God just had more for me to do," Christensen said.

Aneurysms are known as a ‘silent killer,’ March said, because they don’t cause any patient symptoms. But if an aortic aneurysm bursts, the patient’s chance of survival falls to roughly 50 percent, March added.

Surgery was the only option, and on Nov. 20, 2012, Christensen traveled to University of Minnesota Medical Center. There, a care team replaced a portion of his aorta with synthetic material during an open heart surgery.

One year after the surgery, Christensen was able to do 40-minute aerobic sessions and play golf. He is profoundly grateful for the care and support he received from his wife.

Christensen also thinks often of the coincidences that led to his meeting with Dr. March.

“I don’t go to church a lot, but I am spiritual. I believe enough that I think everybody has their time, and somehow God just had more for me to do,” Christensen said.

“It seems like things happen for a reason in a lot of ways,” March said. But Christensen made a proactive decision, she added, when he chose to schedule an appointment with her.

“He also had to take a step—make a decision—to do something,” March said.