It was like a scene from a movie. Romney Mawhorter remembers the helicopter landing on the roof of Keck Hospital of USC.
He remembers the team of doctors and nurses running to the chopper, yelling in order to be heard over the whipping of the helicopter blades.

Only a few hours earlier, Mawhorter and his wife were on a ferry to Catalina Island to enjoy a romantic weekend without the kids. At lunch, the couple at the next table asked Mawhorter if he would snap their picture. He obliged, but when he turned to rejoin his wife he collapsed, feeling as if his entire torso was being squeezed so tightly that he could barely draw a breath.

Mawhorter was suffering the effects of an aortic dissection, which occurs when the inner layer of the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart, tears, allowing blood to flow through the tear and causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate (dissect). The condition is life-threatening and the clock started ticking the second Mawhorter hit the ground.

When Mawhorter arrived at the tiny hospital in Avalon, on what was arguably the worst day of his life, he felt like he had also gotten lucky, because while the doctor there could not save his life, she knew who could. She called the USC Comprehensive Aortic Center, which sent a helicopter equipped with staff trained to help Mawhorter make the trip to Keck Hospital of USC.

“The biggest blessing is that the doctor in Catalina knew who to call,” he says. “The fact that they were able to get me out of Catalina and over to Keck Hospital saved my life. I’m grateful to all the doctors who worked on me that day.”

One of the many jobs of Fernando Fleischman, MD, assistant professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and co-director of the USC Comprehensive Aortic Center, is getting the word out to community hospitals around Southern California about the priority care that Keck Medicine of USC can provide patients with acute aortic syndromes. Because Keck Hospital does not have an emergency room, he explains, some are not aware that he and his team can take patients in crisis who need immediate care.

“We provide more acute care than many people in Southern California realize,” Fleischman says. He and Sophia Lam, a nurse practitioner in the USC Comprehensive Aortic Center, have visited community hospitals across the high desert, out to the Inland Empire and up and down the Southern California coast, educating them about Keck Medicine’s immediate treatment capabilities when it comes to patients with acute aortic syndromes.

A little less than five hours after he collapsed on Catalina, Mawhorter was being operated on by Fleischman. Repairing an aortic dissection is one of the riskiest surgeries doctors perform and the damage in this case was extensive, but Mawhorter survived. Two years later, he is active and living a full life again, focusing on the blessings that came his way that day and all of the days he’s had since.

Rapid transport

For patients with acute aortic syndromes (AAS), time can be the difference between life and death.

Keck Hospital of USC is one of the few hospitals in Southern California that treats patients with AAS. To make sure these patients get the proper treatment as quickly as possible, the Keck Rapid Transport System was created.

Community hospitals can call the Aortic Center’s hotline, which is answered by a medical professional, not a service, 24 hours a day. Patients are evaluated by a vascular or cardiac surgeon. Whether they need to be transported by ambulance or helicopter is determined by proximity and the severity of their condition. A recent review of the Keck Rapid Transport System, published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery, showed hospitals as far away as Las Vegas have used the system.

Learn more at cvti.keckmedicine.org

By: Hope Hamashige