Despite an initial diagnosis of a fatal heart attack, after an autopsy, the official Alan Thicke cause of death was reported on December 21, 2016, as a Type A ruptured aorta.
A ruptured aorta, properly known as an aortic dissection, is a medical condition where a small tear occurs in the inner layer of the aorta. The aorta is the largest artery in the human body and is responsible for transporting oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body. It is also responsible for supplying the heart with blood.
A Type A Aortic Dissection occurs in the ascending section of the aorta and is the most dangerous of all aortic tears.
When a tear occurs in the inner lining, blood can then force its way into the wall of the aorta. This can lead to either a buildup of pressure in the wall which then causes the fatal rupture. This dissection pools blood into the space around the heart. Death comes because of blood loss to major organs. Without treatment, an aortic dissection is invariably fatal.
Symptoms of an aortic dissection are difficult to distinguish from a heart attack, which can lead to a misdiagnosis. Typically, severe chest pain or pain in the upper back occurs, coupled with a sensation of something tearing in the chest. Unlike a heart attack, the pain begins suddenly and may seem to move around the chest.
Other symptoms of an aortic dissection include breathlessness, sweating, dizziness or confusion, and trouble speaking. One of the best ways to diagnose an aortic tear is to take the pulse in different limbs. A different or delayed pulse in different limbs is a major indicator of an aortic dissection.
An estimated 2000 Americans suffer an aortic dissection every year. One-third of them who do not receive treatment die within 24 hours of the initial symptoms. Three-quarters die within two weeks. However, with proper treatment, more than 60 percent of patients are still alive 10 years later.
Alan Thicke is not the only celebrity to die of an aortic dissection. Lucille Ball died of a Type B aortic dissection in 1989. She underwent treatment for a Type A aortic dissection but later died of a separate aneurysm not related to the first incident.
John Ritter was another beloved comedian to die of an aortic dissection, passing away in 2003 during surgery that was meant to repair the tear. He was originally diagnosed with a heart attack at the Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, treated, and released. After his condition worsened, he was then properly diagnosed with the aortic tear.
After his death, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed against the diagnosing physicians. After a trial, the jury concluded that the doctors were not responsible for Ritter’s death. However, Ritter’s family did receive over $14 million in settlements from the hospital.
The Thoracic Aortic Disease Coalition partnered with the John Ritter Foundation to create Ritter Rules, which help to educate the general public about aortic dissection and to improve diagnosis of the disease.
Alan Thicke passed away on December 13, 2016, while playing ice hockey with his 19-year old son, Carter. Thicke is best known for playing the dad on the ABC sitcom, Growing Pains, which aired from 1985 to 1992. He also starred in numerous films, made-for-television movies, and guest-starred in multiple television shows.
Thicke was also known for composing several theme songs for popular shows, including The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, and Wheel of Fortune. He was also a published author, writing two books on parenting for fathers. He was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2013.
Alan Thicke is survived by his third wife, Tanya Callau, and his three sons: Brennan, Robin, and Carter.
[Featured Image by Richard Shotwell/AP Images]