Stroke Survivor Shares His Message: Do Not Put Your Health on Hold

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a number of unanticipated side effects. One is that when people try to stay home as much as possible, they may not just cut out hairdresser and pedicure appointments. Some people avoid going to the doctor. Gregory Bernhardt, age 65, is here to tell you: Don’t do that.

Gregory had prostate cancer surgery in May 2020, and in a follow-up visit, his doctor listened to his chest, heard something that didn’t sound right, and advised Gregory to make an appointment with a cardiologist to find what was causing the abnormal sound.

But Gregory was still recuperating from surgery and was nervous about going to medical appointments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was then surging. “I kicked the can down the road a little and never followed up,” Gregory said.

This attitude is not unusual, says his surgeon, Omar Lattouf, MD, PhD, senior faculty in Cardiovascular Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Lattouf says that during the pandemic, many patients have been hesitant about visiting a medical facility, delaying or even canceling important procedures.

Six months later, Gregory still hadn’t seen a heart specialist. One day, he experienced shooting pain between his shoulder blades that felt as if someone was stabbing him. He was slurring his words and couldn’t stand upright. “I said, ‘Let’s just wait, let’s just wait,’” Gregory recalled in an article about his experience in The Daily News. Soon after, he lost sensation in his right arm and right leg, and his speech became more slurred and harder to understand.

His wife refused to wait and called paramedics, who rushed Gregory to the nearest hospital. By this point, Gregory’s right arm and leg were paralyzed, and he couldn’t talk. He was losing consciousness and started vomiting. Doctors immediately put him onto a ventilator to help him breathe. A special study, called CTA, was immediately performed, leading to diagnosis of an aortic dissection, a tear in the wall of the aorta that weakened the blood vessel and risked an immediate rupture of the artery. The test further showed another life-threatening problem: poor blood flow into the arteries supplying the brain caused by the torn artery. 

Gregory needed open-heart surgery right away and was transferred to Mount Sinai Morningside, where he was prepped for surgery with Dr. Lattouf. The delicate procedure took seven hours, in which Dr. Lattouf and his team replaced the torn aorta with a synthetic graft, repaired the tear in the brain-supplying artery, and repaired the aortic valve. The torn aorta appeared to have started from a point one inch above the aortic valve, caused by an ulceration called “perforating aortic ulcer.”

The next day, Gregory was moving his arms and legs and showing no sign of brain damage. Gregory says he was lucky that his stroke happened with his wife present. Dr. Lattouf says that an earlier echocardiogram might have revealed Gregory’s condition months before, but still, with the successful surgery, “We were able to avert a catastrophic event.”

Gregory’s advice is simple. “Don’t do what I did and put care off when your doctor makes a recommendation. If something’s not right, don’t just wish it away,” he says. “Putting your head in the sand won’t make it better. If you need a checkup, test, or procedure, go see your doctor.”