By Ken Stone
Former San Diego sports columnist Tim Sullivan was in rare form Monday as he recovered at home from a rare condition that could have taken his life.
“Hated to miss the baseball last weekend, but I have found that they play the games whether I am there or not,” Sullivan said in the wake of emergency surgery June 3 for an aortic dissection.
Sullivan, who landed at the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2012 after a 10-year run at The San Diego Union-Tribune, revealed his status Sunday on Facebook.
“Despite a notoriously undisciplined diet and a long-running aversion to exercise, I am pleased and grateful to have survived an emergency heart procedure to repair a dissected aorta,” he wrote. “Would encourage others to see and heed their doctors before they wind up on a gurney or in a grave.”
An aortic dissection — thought to happen to only 3 in 100,000 people — is a tear in the wall of the major artery carrying blood out of the heart. Blood can flow between the layers of the blood vessel wall, leading to aortic rupture or reduced blood flow to organs.
Typical age at diagnosis is 63. Sullivan is 62.
“About 20 percent of patients with aortic dissection die before reaching the hospital,” says merckmanuals.com. “For treated patients who survive the acute episode, survival rate is about 60 percent at five years and 40 percent at 10 years.”
Sullivan is acutely aware of his good fortune.
“It’s never fun to confront your own mortality, but it is sometimes a useful exercise — particularly if you survive it,” he replied to a comment on Facebook.
Dozens of friends and fans shared his relief.
“Sorry to read about your episode but thrilled to read about your treatment and your road to recovery,” said a copy editor friend. “It is a bit of a shock to realize that the games go on without us, but your absence is also a reminder how they are lessened without your coverage.”
Said another: “You really have had a wonderful life, and glad you are OK. No man is a failure who has friends, and you have a ton of them.”
In San Diego, veteran U-T sports columnist Nick Canepa told how he and Sullivan share a love for Broadway musicals and the Great American Songbook.
“But I’m street and he’s Shakespeare, which is why I thought we worked well together. We were not at all similar. Tim probably is the most learned sportswriter I’ve known. Bear trap mind. I don’t think he’s forgotten anything that’s happened in his life.”Canepa said Sullivan had a great love for candy, which is why he called him Wonka. (While hoping he’ll now go easier on sweets.)
“My cousin Richard had the same surgery a few years back,” Canepa said via email. “Then he had another one a few weeks later on a different part of the aorta. 10-hour surgeries. Miracle man. Tim is very lucky. A whole lot of people don’t survive these things, as my doctor told me.”
He signed off: “As with me with Teresa, Tim has a wonderful guardian angel in [wife and former U-T features editor] Lisa, who somehow has put up with him. I wish him the very best. One of a kind, Wonka.”
Sullivan didn’t leave San Diego willingly. He was fired after balking at being a cheerleader for then-publisher Doug Manchester’s push for a new stadium.
Times of San Diego quizzed the award-winning sports writer, who lives in the East End of Louisville, via email.
TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: How did you come to be hospitalized? What were your symptoms, mental reactions?
TIM SULLIVAN: I returned home from covering an NCAA baseball game late on Friday, June 2. While cruising the Internet in my home office, I experienced sudden and severe chest pains. When they did not abate within a few minutes, I woke up my wife, told her something was wrong and we needed to go to the hospital.
Since we live about four miles from a Norton emergency room, she drove me. This was probably somewhere between 1:15 a.m and 1:30 a.m.
Upon arrival at the Norton Brownsboro emergency room, I was put through some quick tests and answered a series of questions. The doctor on duty — I think it was a Dr. Kelly — diagnosed a dissected aorta and advised me I needed immediate surgery. I was placed in an ambulance for a 15-minute ride to the Norton downtown hospital, where a surgical team awaited my arrival. Within minutes, I had handed over my watch and my wedding ring and was being prepped for surgery.
What did you mean by this [on Twitter]: “Some say the world will end in gridlock catered by a hospital. — Me”?
This was just a joke about hospital food. I had nearly no appetite for two days, but the trays that were presented at first were singularly unappetizing, dominated by dry chicken, tasteless varieties of potatoes and numerous varieties of unmemorable puddings.
I was allowed to drink Diet Coke, which I normally crave, but not orange juice.
Gradually, as my appetite returned, the cuisine improved to hit-and-miss from miss-and-miss. I was pleasantly surprised by the roast beef.
When did you return to work? Or are you still on rest?
I have not yet returned to work and am not allowed to drive for four weeks. Considering that the University of Louisville has released a forensic audit of its foundation, which has exposed athletic subsidies that have eroded the school’s endowment, it is a bad time to be away. To say nothing of an NCAA Super Regional between Louisville and Kentucky.
My hope is to return gradually and write from home as much as circumstances and energy allow. A weekly Sunday feature I’ve been doing involving the week’s Top 10 sports quotes has been on hiatus for two weeks and several readers have inquired about its absence.
The package is a time-consuming proposition. It typically includes a 15-inch lede on any subject I choose and an eclectic list of quotes culled from the news of the week and whatever quirky comments I find. It seems to have found an audience and reviving it would afford me the opportunity to explain what happened to me in more than 140 characters.
How did Lisa help you through crisis?
It’s been a team effort. My daughter, Megan, has helped me resettle at home by finding a pillow-type wedge that allows me to sit and sleep in relative comfort and has organized my pills. Lisa has scheduled my follow-up appointments, prepared heart-healthy meals, played drill sergeant during my daily exercises and, just this morning, discovered a family of skunks that have taken up residence in a basement window well.
More than that, though, she has lifted my spirits with her good cheer and sharp wit. She has also kept the bills paid, the pantry stocked and indulged my taste for peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. (Highly recommended).
Why were you explaining Marx Brothers to a nurse (as noted on social media)?
We were walking in the hall at Norton and she was putting me through a set of easy exercises. I was wearing a set of garish robes and made a joke about how I looked like I had arrived from a production of “The Mikado.” She had no idea what I was talking about, even after I burst into a few bars of, “If you want to know who we are,” though my daughter, trailing behind, caught the reference and rolled her eyes.
As we wandered through the hall, the nurse expressed concern that I kept veering left. I told her I needed a wheel alignment.
I’m not sure how the Marx Brothers came up, but I think she referenced “The Phantom Of The Opera” and I took it as an opportunity to discuss “A Night At The Opera.”
Which doctors performed surgery?
I was visited by numerous members of the surgical team after the procedure, and I don’t know all of their names. The surgeon in charge was Dr. Steven W. Etoch. I didn’t know anything about him, but numerous doctors and nurses praised him without prompting. One nurse said his incisions typically leave comparatively small scars.
When Dr. Etoch came to check on me after the surgery, he asked if there was anything he could do for me. I told him he had already done more than I could ever repay. He seemed slightly embarrassed by the likelihood he had saved my life.
What lifestyle changes are you adopting?
I won’t know what specific changes will be needed until follow-up visits with my doctor and Dr. Etoch, but I would assume diet and exercise will be at the top of the list. I don’t know that my problems were primarily lifestyle or genetic, but I have put back on most of the pounds I lost late in my years in San Diego. I intend to react as if I’ve been given fair warning and a mulligan.
What led to your heart crisis?
Again, I’m not sure whether it was poor eating habits and/or lack of exercise, but until I am told differently, I will consider those the usual suspects.
Do you expect to retire at C-J? How many more years in your typing fingers?
I am hopeful of reaching a normal retirement date at the C-J, and perhaps working past it for a few years if health and newspaper economics permit. Lisa is younger — my surgery took place on her 57th birthday — and we’d like to coordinate our retirements to avoid income and insurance gaps.
Any message for your old U-T column fans?
See your doctor. And follow instructions.
Anything else readers should know about your heart scare?
Even the Grinch has a heart that can be healed.
Ken Stone worked with Sullivan at the Union-Tribune.
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