(LifeWire) - A sudden onset of nausea and chest pain, misdiagnosed as a heart attack, ended with the death of actor John Ritter on Sept. 11, 2003. Heart disease was the culprit: The 54-year-old sitcom star had actually suffered an aortic dissection, a tear in the wall of the largest blood vessel in the body, the aorta.
The confusion in diagnosing aortic tears is common, because the condition closely mimics heart attack symptoms. Heart attacks are a much more frequent occurrence, experienced by 920,000 annually and resulting in the deaths of 157,000. Aortic tears strike about 10,000 Americans a year, killing three-quarters of them.
Ritter's widow, Amy Yasbeck, lost a four-year legal battle to hold her husband's doctors liable for his death, which occurred hours after he was rushed to a Burbank, Calif., hospital from the set of his hit sitcom 8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Yasbeck argued that the doctors should have performed a chest x-ray or imaging scan that might have detected the rip in her husband's aorta. Instead, they treated him with blood thinners, standard procedure for a blockage that leads to a heart attack.
The rapid progression of aortic dissection -- a highly unpredictable event that causes blood to seep and then burst through the artery, causing massive internal bleeding -- is proven to have a genetic basis. Ritter's brother was tested after the actor's death and found to have the same condition, which in his case was successfully repaired surgically. Those who suffer from it have a 50% chance of passing the condition to their children.
Ritter, who starred in the popular 1970s sitcom Three's Company, had a significant family history of heart disease: his father, Western star Tex Ritter, died of a heart attack, and his mother suffered a major stroke.
One of Ritter's doctors testified during the liability trial that he warned Ritter after a 2001 g imaging scan that he had coronary artery disease in three major vessels. Yasbeck said her husband had never mentioned this information to her, and it wasn't stated in reports about the trial whether Ritter's doctors had recommended surgery or other treatment.
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