People tell me I'm this walking miracle, but it's really not a miracle. I didn't have any other choice. I wasn't going to sit around for the rest of my life.
In the early morning hours of July 31, 2008, Michael Cannon's entire life changed in a matter of seconds. What should have been a routine trip home after a late-night DJ gig turned into a life-threatening heart injury, weeks in the hospital, and multiple surgeries over the next decade in two different cities. Today, life is sweet again — but it's been a long, long journey to get there.
That's because that morning, as night slid into day, Michael, then 32, got into a car accident on his way from an event in Washington, DC, back to his home in Baltimore. Thanks to his seatbelt and airbag, he walked away from the accident site. He felt so okay, in fact, that he got a lift from the tow truck driver to a restaurant, called a cab to take him to the airport, rented a car, and drove himself home. "I jumped out of the car immediately after the accident. There was all this adrenaline running through my body, and I was frightened. I made sure there wasn't any blood or anything," recalled Michael.
Inside his body, however, something much direr had happened, but he wouldn't know it until the next day. "When I woke up, my entire chest was just throbbing with intense pain," he explained. He called an ambulance to take him to the hospital but passed out as he was getting dressed. The ambulance rushed him to the hospital, where surgeons performed an emergency operation to fix the cause of his pain: a tear or "dissection" in the wall of his aorta, the major artery that conveys blood from the heart to other parts of the body. It was likely the result of the airbag impact.
Within hours of the procedure, Michael's body was still not stable. He ran a high fever. His doctors tried to bring down his temperature and placed him under sedation to help him heal. He ended up in a coma that would last six weeks. Tests showed that he had suffered a stroke either during or after the surgery — or possibly when he passed out while waiting for the ambulance — leaving him without feeling on his left side.
With an ardent dedication to his physical therapy, he learned to walk again and regained his strength. He couldn't work, was on disability, and was often confined to a wheelchair. Today he wears a special brace on his left ankle to prevent his foot from dropping when he walks because he has no feeling beneath his ankle. But the experience took its toll on Michael and on his marriage, which ended. In 2009, he moved back to the New York City area to live with his mother.
His aortic valve started to leak, and he knew he would need another surgery. In 2017, he met two doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center who would change his life: cardiac surgeon Dr. Hiroo Takayama — Director of the Cardiovascular Institute — and Dr. Virendra I. Patel, Chief of Vascular Surgery. Both physicians co-direct the hospital's Aortic Center, an integrated program for patients with aortic diseases.
Not only did the aortic valve need attention; his doctors noted that additional repair was needed in the area of the aortic dissection. "I always knew I would need a second valve surgery, but hearing that I needed additional surgery due to the growth of the dissection was nerve-wracking," Michael noted.
Drs. Takayama and Patel performed valve-sparing aortic root replacement surgery, a complex operation that involved fixing the section of the aorta attached to his heart while preserving his aortic valve. During the same operation, he underwent extensive repair to his aortic arch, which had also been damaged by the dissection. Two additional surgeries followed, including a thoracic aortic stent and open thoracoabdominal aneurysm repair to help address the dissection in the remainder of his aorta. But that's not all: along the way, he also had weight-loss surgery, as well as an ablation procedure to treat a rapid heart rate.
Michael has since earned his real estate license, moved to New Jersey, and bought a home with his fiancée. "After walking every day, I recovered, and life pretty much returned to normal after the second heart surgery," he said. He now sees Dr. Patel once a year. "It was a life-changing event, but Dr. Takayama was great," he continued. "And Dr. Patel, he's an amazing surgeon and a rock star. They both made me feel like I was a close friend. It was really special."
"People tell me I'm this walking miracle, but it's really not a miracle. I didn't have any other choice. I wasn't going to sit around for the rest of my life," Michael concluded. "For me to come out of that surgery swimmingly, being able to talk about it — that's just a testament to the surgeons and the hospitals. I get teary-eyed when I think about it. Just how much care they took — it's a really great feeling."