Woman hopes husband's death raises awareness





Jade Carabajal's husband, Adam, was one of the healthiest people she knew.

That's why when her active and athletic 29-year-old spouse and father of their two children died suddenly in July 2009 from a rupture in his aorta, she and everyone else in their circle of family and friends were stunned.

"He was one of those people who would say 'hi' to you on the street or help you out no matter what you needed," Jade said. "I don't want anyone to go through what we've had to go through."

Now the mother of a 6- and a 3-year-old and a medical professional herself — Jade is a respiratory therapist at Kearny County Hospital — is trying to raise awareness about the genetic disorder that the American Heart Association says often is misdiagnosed as a heart attack at its culmination: thoracic aortic disease.

The night her husband, a former employee at Sunflower Electric Power Corp., died, Jade said they and their friends were on a triple date, enjoying their evening, until suddenly her husband started complaining about a burning sensation in his throat and upper chest area.

His condition worsened throughout the night, and after he became increasingly clammy, sweaty and nauseated, they went to the emergency room at St. Catherine Hospital, where tests showed that his heart rate was up and his blood pressure was low and dropping, she said.

An X-ray revealed nothing unusual, but as her husband's condition quickly deteriorated, EKG results prompted doctors to repeat the test and request a cardiologist.

That night — she can remember it like it was yesterday, Jade said — her husband, with no previous medical conditions, went into shock, was intubated, and then transferred to Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita, where more tests were run to identify what was going on. That's where doctors found the real problem after performing a heart catheterization: a tear in the ascending aorta.

"And then I remember the doctors telling me the chances of him making it were very slim," Jade said. After becoming brain dead, Adam died several hours later after spending time on life support.

Medical researchers are just now beginning to understand how to recognize and treat the complication that kills about 15,000 people each year, according to Thoracic Aortic Disease Coalition, or TAD, which featured the Carabajals' story in March.

Following the death of "Three's Company" actor John Ritter, who died from complications of the same condition in 2003, TAD released the "Ritter Rules," to help medical professionals identify aortic aneurysms or dissections.

The American Heart Association, along with the American College of Cardiology and other leading medical associations, also unveiled in March clinical guidelines for the diagnosis and management of patients with thoracic aortic disease. Affected individuals typically have progressive enlargement of their hearts' ascending aortas, leading to either aortic dissection involving the ascending aorta or a consequent tear or rupture, according to the AHA, but they often have no symptoms and are not easily detectable until an acute and often catastrophic complication occurs.

Prior to her husband's death, Jade said she can remember only two occasions when her husband complained of chest pain while they were married, conditions that she said previous doctors misdiagnosed as pleurisy, when fluid collects inside the chest cavity, causing pain.

Through retelling her family's story, Jade wants to educate individuals that may not know they have a genetic predisposition or a cardiac abnormality that would put them at an increased risk for thoracic aortic disease. Already the mother of two has taken the initiative to have her kids tested: Her daughter Aspyn, 6, has a normal aorta, but her son, three-year-old Kaven, has an enlarged one, a condition the family will have to monitor throughout his life, Jade said.

"I know that people say there is a reason for everything," she said. "Sometimes I think the reason this happened was to save our son."

In addition, family and friends are hosting a second softball tournament in May at Charles Peebles Complex to raise funds for the Carabajals children's education. Last year, the initiative raised $6,000 for the family. If they continue the tradition, Jade wants to donate future funds for medical research of the disease.

"I want people to know (Adam's) story, and to know it can happen to anybody," she said. "I don't want his name to disappear. I want to know even though he's gone, he's still helping people."

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