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Anthony Estrera, MD, smiles with his patient, Jerry Ashworth.

On the pulse of cardiovascular care

Cardiovascular experts help patient get back in the game

Jerry Ashworth's night began like any other Monday night, playing pickup basketball; however, he did not expect for it to end with a trip to the hospital. Focused on making shots and defending the other team, a sudden pop in his chest took his breath away.  

“I stepped off the court and grabbed my shorts, trying to figure out what was wrong,” Jerry says. “I was only 49 years old and exercised regularly. I had no family history of cardiac problems, but I started to wonder if I was having a heart attack.”  

Jerry, Senior Vice President and CEO of Memorial Hermann Cypress and Memorial Hermann Katy Hospitals, stayed on the sidelines drinking water and trying to walk off the discomfort while his son finished up the basketball game.  

When the pain in Jerry’s chest did not subside, he asked his son to drive him to the emergency department at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, where a team of nurses and physicians quickly ruled out a heart attack. Jerry’s symptoms were not adding up, so a cardiologist conducted a physical exam, in which he detected a heart murmur. He ordered an echocardiogram to look for structural irregularities in Jerry’s chest.  

“He turned the screen toward me so I could see what was wrong. Something in my chest looked like a flag blowing in the wind,” Jerry says. “It was my aortic wall.”  

Jerry was experiencing an aortic dissection, a life-threatening condition in which the walls of the aorta tear. With symptoms that mimic other diseases—including a heart attack—aortic dissections can be difficult to diagnose, especially in young, healthy patients like Jerry.  

In Jerry’s case, the dissection resulted from an aortic aneurysm. When the blood vessel ruptured, it dislodged his aortic valve, creating a heart murmur. The cardiologist rushed to transfer Jerry to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center for open heart surgery, where Anthony L. Estrera, MD, Professor and Hazim J. Safi, MD, Distinguished Chair in Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, and his team were waiting to assess the situation.  

“Aortic dissections generally impact people much older than Jerry,” Estrera says. “But they can happen in younger patients and require rapid interventions.”  

Estrera replaced Jerry’s ascending aorta and aortic arch and repaired his valve during a five-hour surgery. Had Jerry waited much longer to go to the emergency department, he likely would not have survived.  

“The surgery went well, and Dr. Estrera told me the repair will last 50 years,” says Jerry. “That is perfect for me because I plan on living to 100.”  

For six weeks after his surgery, Jerry focused on recovery through cardiac rehabilitation, which gradually reintroduced him to routine daily activities. He also regularly checked in with Estrera and his cardiologist, Richard W. Smalling, MD, PhD, to ensure his aortic repair remained strong.  

“The year after my surgery was an uphill climb. I lost nearly 30 pounds, and there was a time when I worried I was never going to be myself again,” Jerry says. “I am so thankful to Dr. Estrera, Dr. Smalling, and the entire UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann teams to be where I am today."  

Through his determination and the help of his care team, Jerry gradually returned to the activities he loves.

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