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Aortic Dissection: Uncommon But Often Fatal

Image Courtesy - Getty Images(EVANSTON, Ill.) -- Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke died Monday night at the age of 69 after suffering an aortic dissection, a small tear in the largest artery of the body.  The same condition took the life of television star John Ritter in 2003. The 54-year-old actor became ill on the set of his TV show, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, and was rushed to a Burbank, Calif., hospital where he died a few hours later.

"It's an emergency condition that requires surgery, and the surgery itself is high risk," said Dr. Chris Malaisrie, a Northwestern University Medicine cardiac surgeon. "Left untreated, 50 percent die in 48 hours."

Aortic dissection can strike anyone, although it most often affects men in their 50s. It occurs when a small tear in the inner layer of the artery allows blood to flow into the middle layer.

"Once there's a tear and blood starts traveling, it can get bigger and bigger," said Dr. Richard Lee, a cardiac surgeon, also at Northwestern.

The fluid builds up between the layers of issue, with [the] potential to eventually rupture into the body. Some 15,000 people die annually from aortic aneurysms in the chest, a precursor to more severe dissections, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

"This is very severe," said Malaisrie. "I've seen patients just die in front of my eyes. There's nothing you can do about it."

Symptoms of an aortic tear are similar to those of a heart attack, including severe chest pain, shortness of breath, and fainting.

While there's no one cause, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and genetic predisposition can put people at risk. Blunt trauma, as from a car accident, can also trigger the condition, which affects two in every 10,000 people, according to the National Institutes of Health.

High-risk individuals are encouraged to monitor the condition of their aorta through an MRI. Even more importantly, one should always seek medical attention if something feels wrong.

"All chest pain is a serious thing. Acute sudden onset chest pain or back pain is serious," said cardiac surgeon Lee. "It's common for people to feel pain, but think they're fine and be moments away from dying."

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ABC News Radio