Chantal Cermak, U.S. Champion Speedskater

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Chantal Cermak is a 1993 and 1994 U.S. speedskating champion who competed on the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Team in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994.

Chantal recounts how she avoided a tragic dissection, in her own words.

I grew up being very athletic and concentrated on eating healthy. I knew about the prevalence of heart disease in my family and, even though in my twenties, I experienced chest pain at times. I always had it checked out and was given a clean bill of health via the results of an EKG, stress tests and holtor monitors. I thought I had dodged the heart disease bullet.

One time, when I was 42, I went for my usual jog, feeling healthy as ever. I woke up the next day with severe chest pain that continued long enough to send me to the ER. They did a CT scan and found I had pneumonia. I couldn't believe it because I actually felt fine. I did get sick as the days went on and eventually needed more antibiotics. I went to the walk-in clinic where the doctor casually asked me, “Did anyone tell you that you had a dilated aorta?"  It had showed up on the CT scan that had diagnosed my pneumonia, but I hadn’t been told nor did I know what it meant.

It was only then that I found out that the “heart disease” on my dad’s side of the family was actually the existence of ascending aortic aneurysms and everyone who had it died. My dad died at the age of 54, my grandpa at 63 and my great grandpa at 49. This is something I should have had monitored! Instead, I found out by accident.

Soon the knowledge that it would be watched and eventually require open heart surgery began to sink in. Two years later, to the date, I found out that my aorta had grown from 4.4 cm to 5.0 cm.  It was decided by my surgeon that it was time for surgery to repair the aorta before it tore or ruptured. The aorta was fragile and flaky, consistent with a connective tissue disorder. After the operation, I found out it was actually even larger -- 5.2 cm. 

The knowledge that my three children have an increased risk of aortic aneurysm due to my family history is very important.  They will have a baseline scan. I'm also currently participating in a study to possibly help find the gene or connective tissue disorder that caused this in my family. the study is being conducted at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston by the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases (which is a collaborative partner of the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health).

I'm doing fine now. I can skate and jog, although not quite at the same intensity as before. However, I am happy and satisfied with the knowledge that I am no longer a ticking time bomb. I am blessed that the problem was discovered, even though it was by accident. Finding out this way was great, but it would have been better if I would have known about my family history – not just about the heart disease but also about the aortic disease. I am very fortunate to have avoided a dissection. Thank God for accidents and a doctor at a walk-in clinic who happened to care enough to notice.