Earl Hamm is a tough Idaho man with a big heart. He’s an avid fisherman, mechanic, foster father, grandfather, and wonderful husband. He boasts that his largest sturgeon caught was almost six feet long, and he’s sure he can land that eight-footer any day now.
Earl also has a serious genetic condition: Marfan syndrome. He is tall and lanky and wears thick glasses. He sleeps with an oxygen mask. He has also survived four major surgeries to repair his aorta – the major blood vessel that exits the heart and carries blood to the brain and vital organs.
In Marfan syndrome, a defective gene (FBN1) causes abnormal production of a protein called fibrillin. Fibrillin is essential for the formation of healthy connective tissue that is both strong and flexible. Connective tissue has many important roles. It assists with growth, sight, and acts as adhesion to hold tissues together, like the tissue layers in the walls of the aorta. Patients with Marfan syndrome are prone to aortic aneurysm (enlargement) and aortic dissection (tearing).
Marfan syndrome is often inherited, meaning it runs in families. Earl has lost both his father and brother to the condition. He and his wife have chosen not to have any biological children. Still, Earl will tell you there is plenty to be thankful for.
"You can’t just sit at home. I live where I play. There’s a fishing hole within an hour of my house. We make the most of our time." Earl and Patty have also taken care of 20 foster children over the past 25 years they have been married. Many of their kids have stayed close and started families of their own, giving them grandchildren to enjoy and, you guessed it, take fishing.
Earl sees Dr. John Doty and his surgical team at the Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center. Most recently, Dr. Doty placed two overlapping stents in Earl’s descending aorta (in his chest) to treat an aneurysm. This was just a month after another surgery that repaired his ascending aorta (just above the heart) and reattachment of his right coronary artery.
Dr. Doty says "Earl is tougher than he looks on paper. I felt he was a good candidate for these last two surgeries despite his previous operations." The aneurysm that was close to Earl’s heart was quite large and located just behind the breastbone. The aneurysm’s location made the operation high-risk and technically difficult. "Other doctors had turned me away," said Earl. "But Dr. Doty was innovative. He found a way."
Earl also talks highly of Dr. Brad Rasmusson, his critical care doctor. "There must have been 24 pumps on the wall of my room in the ICU," he says. "Dr. Rasmusson orchestrated them all—he practically lived in my room for two days."
Earl and Patty report that one of the hardest parts of their experience was being so far away from home. "We only had each other," says Patty. "We were in the hospital at Christmas time and cried on each other’s shoulders. It was really, really hard."
But, going through Earl’s surgeries and recoveries have brought them closer together. "My family realizes how very much I mean to them," says Earl. "They knew it before, but it’s cemented now."
"I’d tell other patients that surgery itself is not all that painful. But, be prepared that your recovery may take a little longer than you would think. Also, things can be just as hard or harder on your caretaker as they are on you. So make sure your caretaker has a way to get support before you have your surgery."
Today Earl is doing well. Patty likes to say "He’s a tough Idaho spud!" He has more energy and is exercising regularly with a local Cardiac Rehab facility.
"I love to camp and fish, I volunteer at a local food bank, I garden and work in my shop. I do light mechanic work, and did I mention I like to fish?"
On February 1, I was sick from the flu. I took time off from my job at UPS to see my family doctor, hoping to get relief from feeling, well miserable. My doctor wasn't in that day, but his physician's assistant confirmed that I had the flu. She gave me some tips on how to take care of myself and wait it out. But that's not all the PA had to say. After listening to my heart, she asked me, "have you ever been diagnosed with a heart murmur?"
I was really surprised. No one had ever said anything was wrong with my heart. I'm an active person, spending hours each week cycling, lifting weights, and playing basketball. But, the PA said that she heard a murmur, and I needed to have it checked out.
About a week later I was laying on my side in an exam room, where a technician held a wand against my chest. He was performing a common heart test called an echo. During the test, the tech stood up, said "excuse me," and went to get the cardiologist. I knew that meant something serious.
My cardiologist explained that I had a bicuspid aortic valve and aortic aneurysm – something I was born with that was never detected when I was a child. My condition needed the attention of a heart surgeon and he referred me to Dr. John Doty, with the Aortic Center at Intermountain Heart Institute.
Things were happening quickly. I didn't feel like I had a choice, more like a series of events and stages that I had to go through. When I met Dr. Doty, he was straightforward, patient and calm. I did a lot of my own research, but that didn't throw him. He was glad that I came prepared. He was extremely supportive as I chose the type of valve replacement that would be best for me.
My surgery was on March 11, a Monday morning. Dr. Doty replaced my aortic valve and sewed a Dacron graft inside my aorta to repair the aneurysm. I was in the thoracic ICU overnight. My brother and sister stayed with me, allowing my wife and kids to get some rest. The next morning I was transferred to a recovery room on the third floor and went home after only four days in the hospital.
I'd tell others to try to prepare for your surgery as best you can. For me, it helped to think about my surgery as if it were an athletic event. I tried to stay active beforehand, practiced yoga and ate nutritious foods. I think that helped me avoid the general soreness most patients feel after a big surgery. Now I am getting back to normal. Since my surgery, I have been back to my cardiologist who already had all my information from Dr. Doty. He is very pleased with my recovery and after only six weeks I've been cleared for all activities with no restrictions.
I couldn't be more grateful for the excellent care I received at Intermountain Heart Institute. Dr. Doty and his team are outstanding professionals and I couldn't be more pleased with the outcome. I also would like to recognize the nurses that helped me power through recovery. Thank you Bree, Julie, Chad, Giovanna, AJ, Michelle and Josh. What still is so amazing to me, is that if it weren't for the flu, I don't know where I would be!
On a summer day in 2007, I stepped into the woods.
I was on the way to the pool with my wife, Laura, and our two boys when I had a strange pain in my chest. We pulled over and got out of the car and the pain continued. It was like nothing I had ever felt before. We sat there for a while debating what we should do. We finally decided I should go to the hospital.
We went to the emergency room in Virginia, where we were living at the time. The medical team determined that I had an aortic dissection — a tear in the inner wall of the aorta causing blood to flow between the layers of the vessel wall, forcing the layers apart. At that time, doctors were able to help me by replacing my aortic valve and repairing a portion of my aorta.
In 2010, after moving back home to Utah, follow-up CT scans revealed my dissection had returned. This time, my entire aorta had dissected causing an abdominal aneurysm. As instructed, I returned to the hospital every six months for a scan that measured the diameter of my aneurysm and checked for growth.
I did feel a little tired during this time and was told to be careful and avoid heavy lifting. The real challenge, however, wasn't how I felt physically, but emotionally. Every day we faced the unknown: When would I finally have surgery? What if something happened between scans?
Finally in October of 2012, my scan showed that the aneurysm measured 6.5 cm. My surgical team, led by Dr. John Doty and Dr. Douglas Wirthlin, said it was time to operate. When an aortic aneurysm reaches 6.0 cm in diameter, surgery is recommended to repair the vessel wall.
Laura and I already knew that surgery was the best option for us. The alternative we faced, waiting and hoping that my aneurysm would not burst, was unthinkable. Indeed, the surgery would give me my only chance at a long and healthy life. A chance that, for us, was worth taking.
On a Saturday, we checked into Intermountain Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center. My surgery was on Monday and afterwards, Laura expected me to be in the ICU for two to three days.
During surgery, my body was placed on cardiopulmonary bypass, a machine that took over my breathing and circulation. After surgery, my heart and lungs struggled to function on their own without the machine — a rare complication that doctors do not often see. Again, we were facing the unknown, deeper in the woods.
Laura: Jared's surgeons skillfully placed him on a life support system called cardiopulmonary support (CPS) and moved him from the operating room to the thoracic intensive care unit (ICU). He was placed under a medically induced coma so that he would remain still and not disturb his life support system. Five days later, he began to breathe on his own though his heart was still weak.
During this time my emotions ran high. The sound of my voice agitated Jared. Touching his skin was the only way I could reach out to him. I hoped that he would know, somehow, that I was there.
Dr. Mark Goddard, a cardiovascular critical care physician, oversaw Jared's day-to-day care. Dr. Goddard gave me frequent updates, which conveyed Jared's slow but steady improvement. Each day Dr. Goddard reminded me, "We're not out of the woods yet".
Nurses in the ICU were a comfort to me. They took time to talk to me, related to me as human being and found ways to take my mind off things. I could only be at the hospital for a few hours every day before going home to our three children. Every day when I left, I knew that Jared was in the best hands possible.
Finally, Dr. Goddard was ready to lighten Jared's sedation. His restraints were removed and he was weaned off his life support machines. Though I was very excited and relieved to reach this milestone, I quickly found that we were still not out of the woods. Not yet.
Over the next two weeks, Jared's confusion slowly wore off. His motor skills and cognitive function improved daily. Then, four weeks after his surgery, Jared was strong enough to leave the ICU. I felt a huge weight lifted — not just from leaving the ICU, but from knowing that Jared no longer had aneurysm that might someday burst.
Jared and Laura: Today, we both feel that despite our complications, we had a wonderfully positive experience. We feel so blessed to have had such an extraordinary team of doctors that we could completely trust, complimented by excellent care from speech, occupational and respiratory therapists.
The day we checked out, we left Dr. Goddard a card. It clearly stated, "We are out of the woods!"
It's all about pumps, pipes and pressures, right?
I've been blessed to have the best care known to man. Every type of care you could ever want or hope for is right here along the Wasatch Front.
Your hard work, creativity, drive and intelligent application of experience and training all came together for my blessing and benefit.
According to my medical record, my "aortic dissection developed into an aortic aneurysm enlargement in the thoracic chest area, which was stable in the 5.5 cm range for 10 years, and then in the 12th year enlarged to the 7.5-8.0 cm range".
My "shortness of breath, wheezing, hoarseness, difficulty climbing stairs/grades" was correctly diagnosed by you as all related to the "dissected aortic aneurysm" and not "exercise-induced asthma."
The fix was to insert the "Dacron graft repair" immediately below the "left subclavial artery for the length of the enlargement in the 12-15 cm range". The bonus was repositioning my diaphragm lower, which due to an old injury had reattached itself higher than normal "limiting pulmonary function". I've watched the video – Amazing!!
Now, I am feeling better than I ever have. I am doing the same weight training and pushups I was before the surgery.
My wife Margaret and I have five sons and nineteen grandchildren. Your team has provided me with the greatest of all gifts – TIME to enjoy watching them grow and mature. Thank you for a very successful, positive result and a gift of time.