Six millimeters. The width of a child’s thumbnail, the thickness of a legal pad, the length of a ladybug – and a distance that changed Devin Simonson from a second-year podiatric medicine student to a patient having open-heart surgery.
Diagnosed as an infant with a bicuspid aortic valve and a slightly dilated ascending aorta, Simonson grew up having regular checkups and tests. He hoped he could live with his condition, but a CT scan in July 2009 showed that his ascending aortic aneurysm had expanded to 55 millimeters, six more than a 2008 test had shown and more than twice that of a healthy ascending aorta. Simonson had to have surgery.
Just eight days before that diagnosis, he and his wife, Megan, learned they were pregnant. “That made me think, ‘What if I die?’” Simonson recalls. “That scared me. We trusted God that things would be all right.”
That trust would be tested after his surgery on Aug. 7, four days after he began his second year in the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery. His pain medications caused him to hallucinate and struggle to focus, a major problem for a medical student. Complications from the surgery damaged nerves in his right shoulder, resulting in immobility and neuropathy in his right hand. Even touching the bed sheet triggered severe pain.
“For a while, I couldn’t flex my thumb, my index finger was virtually useless and my two middle fingers were numb. For a good six months I couldn’t write or open a jar,” he says. “All that terrified me because in podiatry, being able to perform surgery is mandatory. I was already in debt and we had a baby on the way. Grades were harder to get. What am I going to do?”
Simonson got by, however, with faith, willpower and help from family and friends. DMU faculty recorded lectures he watched at home and worked with him on scheduling tests. Classmates – including “just friendly acquaintances” – offered to share their class notes.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support of my classmates, faculty and of course my wife, who was pregnant,” he says.
With his right hand regaining mobility, Simonson is living a more normal life as a student, husband and father to son Noah, who was born in February. He also is enjoying physical activities he previously was forbidden.
“For the first time in my life, I’m doing chest presses. Not very much – they split my chest wide open, after all,” he says. “And I’m always the one lifting the least amount of weight on the machines, but that’s okay. I would like to someday do a half or full marathon.”
In addition to giving him a healthy aorta, Simonson says his years of medical care and his surgery give him insights on what his future patients may experience. Still, he’s glad to be looking back at the experience.
“I hope next year is a little more boring,” he notes.