Team Ritter NYC Marathon runners raise aortic disease awareness, funds

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HOUSTON – (Oct. 9, 2013) – Friends and family members of people with thoracic aortic disease and fans of the late legendary comedic actor John Ritter will come together as Team Ritter to raise funds for the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health (JRF) at the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 3, 2013.

To help her deal with pain of her husband’s death and to raise awareness, Pam Emerson will run in memory of Bruce Emerson, who was 61 when he died.

“We are so proud and grateful to again be one of the official charities of this year’s NYC Marathon and have the opportunity to raise much-needed funds for lifesaving research and education,” said actress, writer and aortic health advocate Amy Yasbeck, the widow of Ritter, who died from an acute aortic dissection in 2003. “Team Ritter runners are passionate about increasing awareness of aortic dissection and its risk factors and are committed to raising funds to support the JRF.”

Funds from the NYC Marathon raised for the JRF will go to the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases (JRRP) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to support research to identify genetic risks for aortic dissections. To donate, visit Edward Norton’s Crowdrise online fundraising community: www.crowdrise.com/TeamRitterINGNYCMarathon2013.

“The funds raised by Team Ritter will allow us to continue our genetic research to identify genes or altered DNA that increases someone’s risk for an acute aortic dissection. By identifying who is at risk, we can prevent premature deaths due to aortic dissections,” said Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., director of UTHealth’s John Ritter Research Program. “It will also help us spread information to both physicians and the public about symptoms and genetic risk factors for aortic dissections, including the fact that this condition can run in families.” Milewicz is professor and George H. W. Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Research in the Division of Medical Genetics at the UTHealth Medical School.

A thoracic aortic aneurysm is a widening, bulge or ballooning of the aorta, the major artery leading from the heart to the rest of the body. If an aneurysm is not treated or surgically repaired, it will enlarge over time without any symptoms and can cause a life-threatening event — typically an acute aortic dissection. In an aortic dissection, a tear occurs in the wall of the aorta, allowing blood to flow within the aortic wall. The dissection makes the aorta unstable, and it can rupture. Almost half of individuals with an ascending aortic dissection die suddenly. Those who make it to the hospital face emergency surgery. Aortic dissection has been ranked as high as the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for nearly 15,000 deaths annually. The majority of these deaths are preventable if individuals at risk are identified and the aortic disease is properly managed.

John Ritter, 54, died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection on Sept. 11, 2003 after he experienced chest pain while taping his ABC hit comedy “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” After John’s death, his brother was found to be at an increased risk for an aortic dissection and underwent surgery to prevent the dissection. Yasbeck formed the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health after John’s death and the John Ritter Research Program at UTHealth was established in 2010.

Here are the stories that got these Team Ritter members to the starting line:

On the evening of Oct. 12, 2012, Sarah Jurica’s boyfriend Cliff Klein—who was otherwise active and healthy—complained of heartburn and jaw pain before collapsing and having a seizure. By the time he arrived in the emergency room, he said he felt an “awful tearing” in his right back shoulder and asked Sarah to massage it. After ruling out a heart attack, the hospital thought he might have a blockage and treated him with blood thinners. After imaging tests, they discovered "fluid" around his heart but it was not diagnosed as blood until it was too late. Klein, just 42, died early the next morning from an undetected thoracic aortic dissection. When a friend asked her, “Isn’t that what John Ritter died from?” Jurica, from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., decided to begin raising funds and awareness. She organized a team of runners for a half marathon in June for the John Ritter Foundation and hosted local fundraisers. She will now run in memory of Klein as a member of Team Ritter. “This will be an awesome adventure to pay tribute to all those lost and all those who survived. And hopefully, for the many more lives yet to be saved,” Jurica said.

Getting ready for work one morning in November 2011, Kent Barrow, 48, suddenly had a “numb, heavy” feeling in his leg. When it didn’t get better, he went to the emergency room at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, IL, where a CT scan revealed an acute aortic dissection. “He was told that without immediate open-chest surgery, death was imminent in the next 48 hours and even with surgery, he was given a 25 percent chance of survival,” said daughter Stacy Curtis, who is a member of Team Ritter in honor of her father. Curtis, seven months pregnant at the time, left her job at an outpatient physical therapy clinic to join family members at the hospital. She and her father exchanged their special “thumbs-up” handshake before his 12-hour surgery. Now Barrow is the proud grandfather of two and is participating in a study on the genetic basis of thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections at the UTHealth John Ritter Research Program. Members of the family now undergo regular check-ups and imaging to screen for aortic aneurysms. “I am thankful for medical staff members who were aware of aortic dissection and the risk factors my dad possessed,” Curtis said. “It was this knowledge that made it possible for him to be with us today.”

Sarah Gredler, shown here as an infant in Dale Gredler’s arms, has sold lemonade along with her older sister Alyson to raise funds for mom Caroline’s Team Ritter marathon race.

Austin resident Greg Weaver, 43, has a family history of thoracic aortic disease. He never met the uncle who died at age 26 from a dissection and he lost his father John, who was just 42, to the disease. When his brother Scott, then 36, was rushed to the emergency room, physicians at the Stanford Medical Center recognized the signs and he underwent successful surgery. Weaver’s family joined the ongoing genetic research at UTHealth’s John Ritter Research Program to see if the disease-causing gene they carry can be identified. Until then, Weaver will continue having regular imaging, which he has done since he was 13 years old. “I now have two boys, ages 8 and 11 years old, and I hope as they grow older, the mystery of this disease will be solved,” he said.

As a pediatric surgeon who has treated individuals with aortic disease, Jed Nuchtern, M.D., will be running the New York City Marathon in honor of the founder of modern aortic surgery. The late Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., pioneered the surgical procedure for repairing aortic aneurysms—a procedure that saved DeBakey’s own life when his aorta dissected. “I have taken care of many children and adolescents with Marfan syndrome and would like to help raise money for research of aortic disease,” Nuchtern, 57, said. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that can lead to aortic dissection. “I enjoy distance running because of the meditation and because it is so different from my daily work,” he said. “Living in Houston, the best time for me to run is before work. I enjoy being out on the roads when they are empty and getting into my groove.”

When Ray Hook, then 46, was sent home from the emergency room in 2005 after having seizure-like symptoms, his family decided that wasn’t good enough. With the knowledge that his mother and uncle both died from aortic dissections while in their early 50s, they sent the test results to a cardiothoracic specialist in Chicago for a second opinion. The verdict: Hook had an aneurysm in his ascending aorta that needed immediate surgery. Genetic testing revealed he has familial thoracic aortic disease. Physicians discovered another aneurysm in 2011, which was also repaired. With his family history, other members receive regular imaging to check for aneurysms. Hook’s sister and his aunt have been diagnosed with aneurysms and are being closely monitored. His wife, Beth Hook, and daughter Aubrey Pollesch, are both running for Team Ritter to raise funds and awareness. “We share my dad’s story with everyone in hopes that maybe his story may help save another person’s life – someone who does not know how at-risk they for an aneurysm,” Pollesch said. Beth Hook is a physical education teacher in Antioch, Ill., whose students include children with special needs when exercising. “I am passionate about sharing my family’s story and making sure that people are aware of connective tissue disorders,” Beth Hook said. “Knowledge is power.” 

On a snowy morning this past February, Bruce Emerson, 61, left before the sun was fully up to remove snow for one of his customers in his hometown of New Richmond, WI. He never returned. Although first responders originally thought that he might have had a heart attack, he was actually suffering an acute dissection of his thoracic aorta. An athlete and coach who was well-known in the small town, he had always loved to run, as did his wife and step-daughter. “Our daughter encouraged me to apply to Team Ritter as she knew that this would keep me focused on something that would be meaningful to me as well as bring awareness to aortic disease,” said his wife Pam Emerson, 53. “I believe awareness and proper care may have given Bruce a chance.” Twenty years ago in October, Pam and Bruce ran their first marathon together. Now she’ll run this one for him.

In their sing-song voices, Alyson Gredler, 7, and little sister Sarah, 5, sell lemonade in a YouTube video that mom Caroline Gredler posted. They are doing their part to raise money for their mom’s commitment to run as part of Team Ritter and spread the word about a disease that took their father’s life at the age of 42 in 2010. Caroline and Dale J. Gredler were posted in Kazakhstan with the United States Agency for International Development when he experienced acute pain in his neck and nausea, followed by lethargy and what felt like a migraine. Misdiagnosed at a clinic, he died four days later of an aortic dissection during a medical evacuation to London. Caroline and her daughters moved back to her home state of Indiana to be closer to family. “Joining Team Ritter gives me great hope that others may learn what acute aortic dissection is, be aware of its symptoms and seek treatment quickly,” Gredler said.

As someone who works with patients who have aortic or other cardiovascular diseases, nurse practitioner Chad Hollis, 30, has seen the effects first-hand. “The opportunity to run in the marathon is my way of showing my love and support for the patients for whom I am responsible and provide care for on a daily basis,” said Hollis, who works at the Cleveland Clinic in the Department of Vascular Surgery with cardiovascular surgeon Tara Mastracci, M.D., who is also a member of Team Ritter. “The importance of research, advancement and medical knowledge was a driving force for me to recently complete a graduate degree as a nurse practitioner,” he said. Hollis runs at least one marathon a year and has teamed up with Mastracci to raise funds. “To be able to run and raise money and awareness about aortic disease is a win-win situation for me,” Hollis said.

Cliff Klein, 42, was otherwise active and healthy before he was struck down by an thoracic aortic rupture that doctors missed. Girlfriend Sarah Jurica will run in his memory.

To counterbalance her intense training and career as an aortic surgeon, Ontario native Tara Mastracci, M.D., has been running since her medical school days. Now she is able to blend her interests together as a member of Team Ritter. Mastracci is on the staff of the Department of Vascular Surgery in the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic and is an assistant professor of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. "I am excited that these pursuits will now meet," said Mastracci, who has run six marathons. "I have dedicated my life to the treatment of aortic disease, and the patients I have encountered with aortic dissection prove to be a large source of inspiration. They are very quickly catapulted into a disease that will affect every aspect of their lives for many years to come. I am always so impressed the way they deal with the 'marathon' of aortic health with a positive outlook and a courageous spirit. These are the patients who will inspire me to run."

Katelynn Bell, 26, was “in love with John Ritter” when she was in high school, so much so that the day he died, friends sent her flowers. “I’m a grown-up now and remain passionate about John Ritter’s career and personal causes,” said Bell, who has donated to the John Ritter Foundation and cerebral palsy organizations. Although she recently moved to South Korea to teach English at Bugil Academy’s International Global Leaders Program, she’ll be in New York City to run the marathon. Her training has included the Chungcheong half-marathon in South Korea, where she represented Team Ritter. It will be her first full marathon but she has bicycled from Georgia to California (where she visited John Ritter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

Four years ago, Washington resident Maria Soriano-Reilly was excited that son Josh, then 21, was about to join the Navy, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. The chest pains he experienced two weeks before boot camp were thought to be nerves but a week later, he arrived at an emergency center suffering from back pain, stomach cramps and nausea. He was diagnosed with gastritis but the pain continued for six more days until he couldn’t stand it. Tests run at yet another hospital emergency room revealed dissecting aortic and abdominal aneurysms, which were repaired by surgeons. Genetic tests showed that he carries a mutation in the smooth muscle alpha-actin (ACTA2) gene, one of the genes Milewicz has linked to thoracic aortic aneurysms. This particular genetic defect, also carried by his father and sister, can also lead to coronary artery disease, ischemic stroke and Moyamoya disease. “When people ask about what happened to Josh, I tell them about the dissection and the gene,” Soriano-Reilly said. “They seem confused. I then ask, ‘Remember what happened to John Ritter?’ and then they understand.”

Kristin Morrison admired Scott Rosenzweig, the father of her sister-in-law Jaclyn Morrison. "He was a humble man," said Morrison. "As a successful entrepreneur, he was the epitome of hard work and dedication. His ethos was always to give and share with others." In February 2012, shock and sadness was felt by family, friends and the tight-knit Long Island lacrosse community when Scott, 55, suddenly died from an aortic dissection. "Scott was a trailblazer for the sport of lacrosse," said Morrison, who captained the women's lacrosse team at Princeton University. "I am proud to be running the 2013 New York City Marathon as a member of Team Ritter in memory of Scott. By running, I'm educating the public and increasing awareness of aortic heart disease."

Watkins Little, aka “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” raced into Internet fame just over a year ago after a spectator’s photo went viral and earned him his new nickname. The photo also caught the eye of Team Ritter. “When I was approached by Amy (Yasbeck) to run for the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health, the title alone sold me on running for their marathon team,” said Little, 27, who was raised in Charleston, S.C., and now lives in New York City. “I of course knew who John Ritter was, but being able to raise awareness for cardiovascular health was the most important factor for me. I am extremely honored to have this opportunity.” Little, a public relations specialist in the music field, first began running with his father through their suburban neighborhood at night. “Even qualifying for the marathon lottery was once a dream,” he said. “Now, I have a cause that I am running for and that means so much more personally than just completing 26.2 miles.”

Tomball resident Catherine Quitania-Pool lost both her 62-year-old father and her 39-year-old sister to aneurysms. Her father’s abdominal aneurysm dissected in 1997 during a camping trip. As a nurse who knew aneurysms often have a genetic basis, she encouraged her family members to watch for any symptoms. But 11 years after the death of her father, her sister unexpectedly died when her thoracic aortic aneurysm dissected. “Aneurysms and thoracic aortic diseases do not care if a person is a grandfather, husband or father; a mother, wife, sister, or daughter; or even a famous actor, husband, father, or son like John Ritter,” she wrote in last year’s team application letter. “Symptoms of back pain or discomfort may be not be taken seriously and health care providers, unless aware of familial medical history, may not treat appropriately or because of insurance constraints, may not order the proper tests.” She started running in her sister’s memory. “I started running because she couldn’t,” said Quitania-Pool, who has two teenage children. Joining her this year as a new member of Team Ritter is her husband Jock Pool.

Jacqui Duke, 39, doesn’t personally know anyone with thoracic aortic disease but she knows how it affected her close friend and fellow member of Team Ritter, Catherine Quitania-Pool, who lost both her 62-year-old father and her 39-year-old sister to dissected aortic aneurysms. She watched Quitania-Pool mourn her sister’s death and invited her to join their running group in Houston. She ran with Quitania-Pool in the latter’s first half-marathon. “Her heart and journey became mine as well as we became friends and running partners,” she said of Quitania-Pool, who credits running with helping her heal after her sister’s death. Duke, who now lives in Calgary, will be reuniting with her friend as a member of Team Ritter. “I want to help carry the cause for this disease. I’ve been told it runs in families and because Cathy lost her father and her sister, I’m affected because I love Cathy. I want there to be better screening tools to give her peace of mind.”

Seven years ago, when Jonathan Miller died suddenly of a thoracic aortic dissection as a result of suspected undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, Edward M. Cooning IV, 39, and fellow friends joined together to form Jonnie’s Goodguys in his honor. Miller had planned to run the One America Mini Marathon in Indianapolis that year and his goal became their goal. The small group has grown into an organization that brings awareness to cardiovascular health, donates to multiple charities and coaches new runners through training. “It’s the goal of Jonnie’s Goodguys to educate and generally live a healthier lifestyle so that we are all around a little longer with our loved ones,” Cooning said.

In 2009, with no known history of heart or aortic disease, then 37-year-old Amy Derksen was shocked to discover that she had a bicuspid aortic valve, a birth defect that led to a thoracic aortic aneurysm requiring immediate surgery. In a bicuspid valve, there are only two leaflets instead of the normal three, which allows blood to backwash and puts stress on the thoracic aorta. “At the time, I was busy raising an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old and I was in the best shape of my life,” said the former Denver resident, who blogged about the experience. “I soon realized that I was so lucky and blessed that the condition was diagnosed before it was too late.” Currently living in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Derksen is busy raising her children, now 5 and 7, training for the marathon and sharing her story.  “I am passionate about telling people about aortic disease and passing on the Ritter Rules whenever the opportunity presents itself. I proudly wear my scar as a reminder to live life to its fullest and be thankful for every day,” she said.

As an operating room nurse, Nicole Kreisler, 38, has seen her share of what cardiovascular disease can do to patients. She also has fond memories of watching John Ritter in “Three’s Company.” So the Milwaukee resident was excited to learn last year that she would be part of Team Ritter at the ING NYC Marathon. “With my work background, I have a great understanding of aortic and vascular disease,” said Kreisler, who is married to a fellow marathon runner and has two children. “By running for the John Ritter Foundation, I am able to support someone I was fond of, as well as share information and educate people on an important disease.”

Cardiac surgery nurse practitioner Monica Slack has daily encounters with patients who have suffered acute aortic dissections and aneurysms, as well as other cardiovascular diseases. The 26-year-old Cincinnati resident is also a dedicated marathon runner and she didn’t hesitate to sign up for Team Ritter. “As someone who works with these patients firsthand, I would like nothing more than to combine my love of running with a cause about which I am passionate and feel as though I can incorporate into my daily work life. These patients are often unaware of the function of the aorta, how it dissects and the high likelihood of mortality following perforation of the aorta. They are also unaware of the importance of blood pressure control in preventing aortic pathology,” Slack said. “A charity such as this one can contribute to preventative aortic health education in the outpatient/public spectrum.”

Linda Belocas of Carver, Mass., found out she was pregnant with her first child on Sept. 11, 1998. She called her parents in excitement and her father, Torrey Nihill, 50, answered the phone. “We talked for an hour, which was really unusual and the last thing he said to me was ‘Everything’s going to be all right.’ But an hour later my brother called and said something was wrong with Dad.” Her father, who was suffering from a headache that caused vomiting and confusion, died from a massive brain hemorrhage. Belocas named her daughter Leanna Torrey in honor of her father but sadly enough, the baby died from sudden infant death syndrome when she was 8 months old. “My family has been through a lot. We’re really tight and we don’t take anything for granted,” Belocas said. While going through her father’s papers, the family discovered that his grandmother had died at the age of 53 from a brain hemorrhage, raising the question of whether they might have a familial genetic defect that causes vascular disease. Belocas will be running alongside her brother, Brian Nihill of Hannover, Mass. “We’ll be running in memory of our dad. It gives us a way to support Team Ritter and do something together,” Belocas said.

Deborah Mann Lake
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