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Published on March 16, 2021

Jason Knutson and family

Heart Emergency Ends Well Thanks to Right Care at the Right Time

Our hearts keep on faithfully beating – fairly unnoticed – for the majority of our moments. But when something goes wrong, your life depends on getting the right help at the right time.

That happened to Jason Knutson, DO, when an aortic aneurysm ruptured as he was returning to Sioux Falls after a family trip to Ohio in August 2018.

“A string of little miracles had to happen to make one huge miracle happen – and they all happened. The odds were stacked so far against me, but everyone did everything they could really well, really fast, and I’m here because of them,” Knutson said.

Knutson was diagnosed at age 6 with a congenital heart defect that was repaired by surgery. He competed in athletics throughout his high school years, thinking everything was OK, but a heart screening for athletes showed that he needed surgery once again, this time at age 20. “As I grew and the aorta grew, the patch they put in didn’t grow.”

Aortic Aneurysm Ruptures – Out on the Road

Knutson went on with his life, became a doctor, got married to his wife Tricia and had children. Everything was fine for this Avera family practice physician until at age 44, when he and his family were on the way home in their family van, somewhere between the Luverne and Beaver Creek/Hills exits on I-90.

After feeling a bubble or burp that started to come up, Knutson began choking and coughing up blood. The only way he could breathe was to cough really hard, and then gasp for a breath.

His wife, Tricia Knutson, also an Avera doctor, knew his medical history and knew that he was in real trouble. She called the emergency department at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, sending a picture of all the blood she was seeing on the pavement that her husband had coughed up. “They got all the blood products and CT scanner ready,” Knutson said.

To the ED

“I didn’t know this situation had about a 2% survival rate, and that’s probably in an ICU – not out on a highway,” Knutson said.

The CT scan showed an aortic aneurysm, but typically in those cases, blood doesn’t come out of the lungs. “It didn’t make sense,” Knutson said.

Due to scar tissue from his previous surgeries, the ruptured aneurysm didn’t present as it normally would.

The team felt like the blood was coming from his left lung, so they laid him on his left side to drain blood from his right lung in order to help him regain some lung function. “That decision alone saved my life – and there were many others like that,” Knutson said.

Expert Surgical Intervention

He was rushed across town to the Avera Heart Hospital. “I don’t know how much blood I had lost, but I know I received six units, or pints, of blood – and the human body has a total of about eight pints. I was losing it faster than they could give it to me.”

Expert surgeons repaired the aneurysm with an artificial graft. Then they went to work on his lungs in a procedure known as bronchoscopy to clear out the blood. Knutson later learned that his blood gas numbers or pH levels were so low that he shouldn’t have been alive.

Knutson was intubated for five days before he could breathe on his own. He also had two minor strokes during his recovery, yet Knutson was able to return to his normal activities of life. “I’m a dad, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend and a doctor.”

Each Day Is a Gift

One of the first things he appreciated the most was driving his children to school, seeing them enthusiastically hop out of the car and run toward the doors, their backpacks flopping. “I had seen it a hundred times and didn’t think much of it, but it was so beautiful to me,” Knutson said.

A thousand other “little” things became just as beautiful to Knutson, who counts each day since his experience on the Interstate as a gift. “And I’m going to keep counting for a long time.”

Learn more about heart services at Avera or request a Planet Heart screening.

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