High blood pressure almost took Raul Rodriguez’s life.

He’s a professional hairdresser who lives in Los Angeles County. The 55-year-old man had to put his life on pause to undergo open-heart surgery to correct a problem with his aorta.

“On the week of Christmas back in 2014, I started to get really tired and I couldn’t understand why I was more exhausted than any other time.”

Raul had gone on a few trips and didn’t think he was listening to his body. At least, that’s how he explained away his exhaustion. But, it was much more severe than that — he was experiencing heart complications.

“Around the end of the year when I was taking a nap, I felt a rip in my chest. I didn’t know exactly what it was. I thought it was just a muscle spasm, so I ignored it.”

“On January 3rd I went to work, but I wasn’t feeling like myself. In the middle of the afternoon I told my receptionist I needed to go home. When I came home I noticed my vision get blurry, my energy level significantly reduced and I felt a weird chest pain.”

Raul went to dinner with his partner, but didn’t say a single word about what he was going through. The next morning he looked to the Internet for answers.

“When I Googled my symptoms, I knew that I needed to go to the hospital immediately.”

Raul’s brother picked him up and took him to a local hospital in Downey. Tests at Keck Medicine of USC revealed he had an aortic dissection. An aortic dissection is a tear in the inner layer of the large blood vessel branching off the heart. These are devastating diseases with very high mortalities, where most medical centers have a mortality rate greater than 17%. At Keck Medicine of USC, our mortality rate is 10%, one of the best reported. He was immediately put into the ICU and transferred to Keck Medicine of USC.

On January 4, 2015, a team led by Fernando Fleischman, MD of the USC Cardio Vascular Thoracic Institute at Keck Medicine of USC performed open-heart surgery on Raul. The surgery was a success, but due to the preexisting symptoms he experienced a stroke 8 days after surgery.

“The doctors informed me that this would probably happen because my vision went blurry beforehand. I had all the symptoms of a stroke, but I wasn’t paying attention to my body.”

Due to the stroke, Raul had to stay in the hospital for another week before he was discharged.

“I felt like I was being treated like a family member. I’ve never experienced so much attention and care as I did in the hospital. It’s so impressive to see how much everyone cared about me and what was going on with my health. I felt so grateful. The whole experience was just amazing. Every time I go back, I thank the people who helped me throughout the process.”

During the recovery process, Raul wanted to discover what had caused his aortic dissection so he could prevent it from happening again in the future. He came to discover that this all stemmed up from him having high blood pressure.

“For years, doctors told me to watch my blood pressure, but I was never monitoring it like I do now. I was told to take my medication and watch what I ate. I thought I was eating okay, but I guess I wasn’t. So now I watch everything I eat.”

Raul is relearning how to eat healthy and he has gone back to cutting hair part time. He looks forward to being able to travel and explore more of the world.

“I’m so grateful to be alive. I don’t know how to explain it. All I can say is that everyone at Keck Medicine of USC is amazing.”

That’s another example of The Keck Effect – giving patients a second chance to live out the rest of their lives.

By Leonard Kim