I want you to meet Cullen Timmons. His story - relative to aortic aneurysms - is a remarkable case of astute thinking and serendipity.

Cullen Timmons - Aortic Aneurysm Survivor. Source: Twitter

Cullen is a 26-year old, active, healthy medical student at the University of Virginia who was taking an elective called “Advanced Physical Diagnosis”.  As part of that class, he placed a stethoscope to his own chest to listen to his own heart. What he heard surprised even him.

Cullen heard a distinctive “swooshing” sound called a heart murmur.  He was surprised to hear this because he felt well and had never been told he had a heart problem on prior physical examinations.

After the initial shock wore off, he asked his instructor, Dr. Eugene Corbett and another student to take a listen. Read more.

After undergoing additional testing, Cullen was diagnosed with a thoracic aortic aneurysm.  More specifically, it was an aortic root aneurysm with associated aortic valve insufficiency.

The aortic root is the region of the aorta which sits right above the aortic valve and represents the starting point of the aorta as it connects to the heart.  When this area is enlarged, it can stretch the aortic valve and cause it to not work properly.  With the valve stretched, blood can’t exit the heart very easily when the heart tries to pump the blood out of the heart.

The “swooshing sound”, or murmur, that Cullen heard was blood swirling as it exits the heart through the incompetent aortic valve.

Thoracic aorta (portion of aorta located in the chest)

Letter A in this diagram represents the aortic root and right below it is the aortic valve of the heart.

Cullen’s aortic root was 7.2 cm which is quite large.  The normal aortic root measures 3.5 cm, so it was literally double the normal size.

With the aortic root that large, there is a risk of aortic dissection or aortic rupture, both of which are life-and-death emergencies.

Once Cullen was diagnosed with an aortic root aneurysm, was evaluated by a heart surgeon at The University of Virginia.  Dr. Irv Kron recommended open heart surgery.

Cullen underwent a successful 4-hour surgery called “valve-sparing aortic root replacement” and has since gone on to graduate from medical school.  He has returned to a normal lifestyle and has started his residency training at Vanderbilt University.  He is specializing in emergency medicine.

As a result of this experience, Cullen said that being the patient was very humbling.

Here is a video which tells his story in his own words.