By: Natasha Barrett
Most of us gathered around our TV for the biggest game of the year.
Either to see those big-money commercials.
The always gossiped about half-time performances.
Or, the actual showdown on the field.
But, this year, watching the Super Bowl was different for Jerry Ashworth.
Hometown football hero Patrick Mahomes was playing in the game for the Kansas City Chiefs. The two are from the same east Texas town of Whitehouse. That’s not the only reason the Super Bowl was special. Ashworth came close to missing it this year.
“I almost died,” he said bluntly.
Ashworth was playing basketball with friends last April when he says he felt a big pop in his chest. It took his breath away. He doubled over. At first, he tried walking it off. He decided to drink some water to try and feel better.
The thought did cross his mind, “Maybe I am having a heart attack, I was thinking, because the feeling did not quit,” Ashworth said.
Ashworth thought it had to be something else. He was the kind of guy who hit the gym four to five times a week. He had no family history of heart problems. Still, he decided to go to the emergency room.
Doctors ran several tests and ruled out a heart attack. They told Ashworth he had a tear in his aortic wall coupled with an aortic aneurysm. The name of the disease is called Thoraco Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm.
A thoraco abdominal aortic aneurysm is bulging and weakness in the wall of the aorta that extends from the chest into the abdomen. The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body and it delivers blood from the heart to the rest of the body. A thoraco abdominal aortic aneurysm can burst, which can cause life-threatening, uncontrolled bleeding.
Doctors described what they saw inside Ashworth’s chest looked like a flag just waving in the wind. That tear in his aortic wall also caused a leaky aortic valve. Basically, Ashworth needed surgery. Open heart surgery. Immediately.
“I did not have time to be scared,” he remembered.
Heart surgeon Dr. Anthony Estrera, Chief of Cardiac Surgery in the Department of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and Medical Director of Cardiovascular ICU and Cardiovascular IMU at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute at the Texas Medical Center, operated for four and half hours on Ashworth. Dr. Estrera repaired his aortic wall and Ashworth’s valve went right back into place.
“Many people who suffer from acute aortic dissection do not know they even have a problem until it occurs. Jerry’s case also demonstrates that aortic dissection does not discriminate and can occur in the healthiest of folks,” Dr. Estrera explained.
Ashworth remembers being told that if he had not gone to the emergency room and did what he did, there was a good chance he would have died within 24 hours.
“Jerry was a very fortunate man who underwent surgery for Acute Type A Aortic dissection. His condition was a potentially devastating condition that can occur unexpectedly, in anyone who has a Thoraco Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm,” Dr. Estrera said.
Ashworth returned to his work as Senior Vice President & CEO at
TIRR Memorial Hermann, Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital-Katy after spending six weeks at home recuperating. He lost 20 pounds during that time.
“I will admit that Jerry’s fitness level absolutely benefited his recovery from surgery. I’m just really glad that I could help Jerry during that crucial time, and will be very involved in his care moving forward, since aortic dissection requires life-long disease management,” Dr. Estrera added.
Less than a year after his surgery, Ashworth still reflects on his huge health scare and the impact it made on his life.
“I struggle with it a little bit. It made me think, should I change my priorities or do anything differently than before?” Ashworth asked.
As a father of two and husband to his wife, Victoria, of 17 years, he is trying even more to have a better balance between work and family life. To savor the important moments in life.
Just months after returning to work, Ashworth was named the Houston Business Journal’s Most Admired CEO in Houston. The surprise honor was the idea of one of his team members, a radiologist at TIRR, who originally nominated him. A colleague who works closely with Ashworth described his style of leadership,
“Jerry embodies Memorial Hermann’s goal to personalize care – his high touch, high visibility leadership instantly connects with patients, their families and our teams and physicians. While he was less present at TIRR during his recover, the first question on the mind of all was, ‘How was Jerry?’.” said Rhonda Abbott, Vice President, Operations at TIRR.
Ashworth turned 50 after his heart scare. He jokes that this was supposed to be “the year of Jerry.” Though, heart surgery wasn’t on his original list of fun things to do.
“I do think I dodged a bullet with this surgery,” he said. “A low percentage of people survive what I survived.”
Arguably, that fact sure does make it “the year of Jerry.”