Benjamin Bradford lived as if he knew his time was limited. The first of three sons born to Carol and Bruce Bradford, he grew up to become a loving older brother, a friend to many, and a hero to his father.
Like his father, Benjamin never met a stranger. His two greatest passions were people and golf, and after graduating high school, he worked alongside Bruce at the family’s golf store in Katy, Texas. For nearly 60 hours each week, the father and son duo built a thriving business and became friends to many in the Katy community.
“Benjamin was coming into his own,” says Bruce. “He would move mountains to help family and friends, and I was so proud to watch him become successful in business and life.”
Late one night in July 2012, a searing abdominal pain struck Benjamin. His roommates rushed him to the emergency room as Benjamin agonized in pain.
Doctors struggled to pinpoint the cause of Benjamin’s pain, concluding that his gall bladder was to blame. With the pain inexplicably intensifying, he stayed the night at the hospital with his mother at his bedside.
Benjamin’s condition continued plummeting until the following afternoon when his heart stopped beating. Although doctors were able to revive him, his heart soon gave out again. At 24 years old, Benjamin—a healthy, flourishing young man—left this world.
“His doctors took me to that private room and told me they didn’t know what happened,” Bruce recalls. “They urged us to have Benjamin autopsied.”
Searching for answers
Over the next few days, the Bradfords learned Benjamin suffered an aortic dissection—a deadly condition where the inner layer of the aorta, the main vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body, tears. Doctors suggested they contact The John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases at UTHealth to learn whether Benjamin’s condition was genetic.
Led by Dianna M. Milewicz, MD, PhD, The John Ritter Research Program is improving the diagnosis, treatment, and public awareness of thoracic aortic disease to prevent premature deaths.
“Dr. Milewicz and her team helped us navigate the most difficult time of our lives,” says Bruce. “Thanks to them, we found that Benjamin had a mutation in the ACTA2 gene, which caused his aortic dissection. We also learned that our family was at risk of suffering from the same genetic mutation.”
With help from The John Ritter Research Program, Bruce, his wife, and his two sons received genetic testing and cardiovascular imaging to detect thoracic aortic disease. None of them had the same mutation in the ACTA2 gene, but doctors found Bruce had an aortic aneurysm through the imaging.
“Had doctors not screened my aorta as a result of my son’s death, I almost certainly would have suffered an aortic dissection,” says Bruce. “With the sacrifice of his life, Benjamin alerted doctors to my condition and saved my life.”
Siddharth Prakash, MD, PhD, who works with Milewicz at The John Ritter Research Program, now regularly monitors Bruce’s aorta to minimize the risk of dissection. Bruce maintains his health using medication to lower his blood pressure and relax his blood vessels, reducing strain on his aorta.
A hole in one
In 2017, the Bradfords established Remembrin’ Benjamin, Inc., a nonprofit organization that hosts an annual golf tournament each July to support The John Ritter Research Program.
“It is a way for us to honor Benjamin and hopefully save a life,” says Bruce.
The inaugural Remembrin’ Benjamin Golf Tournament teed off in July 2017. Bruce had planned to raise about $20,000, but an outpouring of community support brought in $40,000. The total has grown each year since, resulting in more than $150,000 for the research program. Expanding their fundraising initiatives in 2019, Remembrin’ Benjamin also led a campaign to raise funds for The John Ritter Research Program on UTHealth’s online crowdfunding platform.
“We are honored to share the mission of Remembrin’ Benjamin to prevent early deaths from thoracic aortic disease,” says Milewicz. “Their support has been remarkable in helping us find the genetic triggers that cause aortic dissections.”
“My hope is that no other family has to suffer the heartbreak and loss that we did,” says Bruce. “I’m grateful I was able to spend five years working alongside Benjamin before he left us, and I will always honor his memory.”