TRAVERSE CITY — The pain Kim Lautner felt in the early afternoon of March 3 is something she will never forget.
Lautner was making a salad at the home of her boyfriend, Bob Mick, after snowmobiling that morning when she stooped to snatch something off the floor.
“I remember bending over to pick something up,” the 61-year-old Traverse City woman recalled. “I had this pain. It was excruciating.
“They always talk about the pain scale being from 1 to 10. It was at least a 50. It was way beyond a 10. It was off the charts.
“It was hard to breathe. It was hard to describe. It hurt to expand my lungs. Everything hurt.”
Lautner had suffered an aortic dissection, a tear in the largest artery in the body that begins at the top of the left ventricle of the heart and supplies blood to several vital organs. An aortic dissection is what killed actor John Ritter.
Fortunately, Lautner’s dissection was non-emergent. That allowed the licensing and election specialist with the City Clerk’s Office an opportunity to let her aortic tear heal.
Lautner said she received great care at Munson Healthcare Manistee Hospital and later at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, where she spent a week in the intensive care unit to stabilize her soaring blood pressure and allow the aorta to heal as much as possible.
Lautner returned to Butterworth on April 16 to have four stents put into her aorta from a team led by vascular surgeon Dr. Eanas Yassa. Lautner was the first person in the Midwest to receive the Zenith Dissection Endovascular System, Yassa said.
The procedure delivered both cloth-covered and open-mesh stents under an X-ray through a pair of tiny incisions rather than the more traditional open-heart surgery that requires an incision from the shoulder blade down to near the pelvic bone.
“It was just approved in December of ‘18,” Lautner said.
“This sequence of operations and procedures, even though she may need additional small procedures along the way, is much less invasive and really changes the course of her recovery with the hope being that she never needs that big operation ... ,” Yassa said.
In a dissection, the inner-most of the three layers of the aorta tears. That allows the blood to flow between the outer and middle layer through a false passage called a lumen. That increases the risk of a complete rupture or a stroke.
Yassa’s team installed the stents in Lautner’s aorta to restore the vital blood passageway. Lautner was back home in Traverse City less than two weeks later.
“The more people that know about this (procedure), they won’t have to have open-heart surgery unless it’s an emergency situation,” Lautner said. “If you don’t have to have open-heart surgery, the healing process is so much faster.”
Lautner went back to Grand Rapids in May to have two additional smaller stents added to blood vessels to her kidneys. She has another surgery scheduled for July 18 to keep the blood from flowing through a false lumen to a portion of her intestine as well as her lower legs.
“It’s all related to the dissection,” she said, adding that other than that she’s “healthy as an ox.”
The aortic dissection, the stents and the surgeries have done something many thought was not possible: Slow down Lautner, if at least temporarily.
“I won’t get my bicycle down because I have to ride only on flat surfaces,” Lautner said. “My son (Topher Lautner) always said, ‘A walk to her is a 3-mile hike. She doesn’t do anything little. It’s all or nothing.’”
“She’s an amazing person,” Yassa said. “Obviously it’s unfortunate in my line of work, I often meet really wonderful people at the hardest and worst moments of their lives, but it’s still an honor to have had a chance to meet her. She’s an inspiration in terms of her approach to all of this.”
While Lautner is recovering and learning what her “new normal” is, she feels fortunate on many levels.
“I feel thankful every day I wake up,” Lautner said. “I don’t think I realized how critical I was. While in my head, I think I know I could have died, I didn’t realize how critical I was. I may never realize how close I got because I was still talking, I was still breathing, I was just in a lot of pain.”
She praises the personnel at Manistee for stabilizing her that March day, for North Flight Aero Med transporting her by helicopter to the Meijer Heart Center, and for Yassa and her team at Spectrum Health.
That’s why Lautner is singing the praises of the Zenith system. She said if getting the word out about the revolutionary procedure helps one person, “it’s all worth it.”
“This thing is awesome,” Lautner said. “I wasn’t cracked open or sawed open. To come out of it as good as I did is just wonderful. It makes you appreciate every day. There’s an old song about living every day like it’s your last and yeah ... yeah, slow down and smell the roses. Life is going by way, way, way too fast.
“Every day I can wake up and take that one big breath. Yeah, that’s what it’s all about. I’m here for a reason. I don’t know what it is, but I’m thankful for every day.”