Touched by loss. Empowered through community.

One Percent

Monday, March 18, 2013
Posted By: 

The figure one percent is typically used to describe the wealthiest of the wealthy. You know, the top one percent – the bankers and lawyers and Warren Buffets of the world. I am not one of those people, and this blog isn’t about that. To me, one percent signifies something entirely different. It happens to be the incidence rate of the medical condition that killed my husband.

I found him unresponsive in the shower on the Sunday after Thanksgiving back in 2008. In what seemed like an instant, he’d gone from a vibrant human being to a husk. The paramedics took over chest compressions, worked on him a while, and then told us he was dead. Intuitively, I knew this, but my brain simply couldn’t go there. What the hell had just happened? I was utterly clueless, in disbelief. My husband was a fit and healthy man. He never smoked a cigarette. There was no heart problem that we knew of. He visited his physician regularly, and showed no sign that day that anything was amiss.     

My story may sound familiar. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, your significant other likely died young. And dying young – be it from cancer, a heart condition, an accident or some other cause – is by definition atypical in today’s world of sophisticated medical interventions. Life expectancies are on the rise. Our spouses should have lived well into their 80s. I shouldn’t be able to count the number of years I was married on one hand. Instead, as surviving spouses, we’re left behind to struggle with the how’s, why’s and what if’s. We feel as if we’ve somehow failed. We seek answers and explanations. We do this with great gusto until we realize there aren’t any.

When my husband died, the first explanation was offered quickly, unsolicited from an assclown paramedic who looked me straight in the eye, shrugged and said, “These things happen. I see it all the time.”

“Seriously?,” I thought to myself. “You find 40-something year old men dead in their showers all the time? ” I wanted to strangle him. When the county medical examiner’s office feigned disinterest, I hired a private pathologist and paid out-of-pocket for an autopsy. I needed to know why my husband died, and twenty-four hours later, I had my answer: something called a renal artery aneurysm had ruptured in his abdomen. The bleeder caused an extreme drop in blood pressure, which in turn stopped my husband’s loving heart.

I had a cursory understanding of the term “aneurysm” but my knowledge of the renal arteries was, shall I say, lacking. So in the days and months that followed, I Googled.  At times obsessively. I spoke to my husband’s physician. At my office, where I can access most medical journals with the click of a mouse, I entered “renal artery aneurysm” into every available search engine. Here’s a synopsis of what I found:  

The first report of RAA (doc-speak for renal artery aneurysm) was published in 1770; it described a sailor who collapsed onto his right flank. Most journal articles focus on surgical repair of these unusual aneurysms when they’re found incidentally via abdominal imaging (my husband had never been scanned because he’d never been sick). Spontaneous rupture is addressed minimally, though it is acknowledged that, in the rarest of cases, rupture can and does occur. Rupture is obviously catastrophic. My husband was one of those very rare cases, like the sailor who fell on his flank in 1770. It is further noted in the literature that the incidence of RAA is 1 %. This figure has always stuck in the back of my mind – one percent. It speaks to the unlikelihood that such a thing could actually befall someone I know and love.

When I tell people my husband died of an aneurysm, they often ask if he had a headache. Not that kind of aneurysm, I say. Oh, an aortic, they respond. Nope, not that either. It can be difficult to explain because nobody’s ever heard of such a thing. I note the rarity of what happened and leave it at that. No sense boring others with a convoluted anatomy lesson.

Truth be told, I could probably give a sophisticated lecture to third year medical students on renal artery aneurysms, what with all the time I spent reading about them. But that was a long time ago. After months of torturing myself with the journals, I stopped cold turkey. Come to find out, the literature didn’t provide the answers I was looking for.

Four years later, I heard about someone else dying from the same ticking time bomb. It wasn’t anyone I knew, but a relative of a colleague of my closest friend. This time, a 48 year-old woman was found unresponsive by her husband; she’d collapsed getting out of the shower. Dang if the circumstances weren’t eerily similar to my own. When I heard about it, I got goosebumpy.

I often think about this woman’s family members, overcome with grief by their untimely loss. I think about them Googling “renal artery aneurysm,” and reading about the sailor’s demise in 1770. I wonder if they’re as puzzled as I was by the lack of information on spontaneous rupture. Surely they know that their wife/mother/friend was exceptional in every sense of the word. After all, she’s part of the one percent. Just like my husband.   


Thanks for this blog -- it made me rethink my husband's death 4 years ago. I have now re-goggled it and learned he was also in a 1%. He had a ruptured subarachanoid hemorrhage and just collapsed when sitting in a chair watching TV. Thanks for making me think of it this way -- he was very special, which I know now even more than then, but this confirms it in another way. It brings a smile to my face and some warmth to my heart. Thanks for sharing.

Add new comment