Sports reporter Grant Wahl died of a rupture of an ascending aortic aneurysm with hemopericardium – an accumulation of blood in the sac around his heart – his wife, Dr. Céline Gounder announced on Wednesday. The aneurysm was slowly growing and had gone undetected, she wrote in a statement on Substack.
“The chest pressure he experienced shortly before his death may have represented the initial symptoms. No amount of CPR or shocks would have saved him. His death was unrelated to COVID. His death was unrelated to vaccination status. There was nothing nefarious about his death,” Gounder wrote.
An aneurysm occurs when a weak spot in a blood vessel bulges or balloons out. In Wahl’s case, the bulge was in the aorta, the largest artery carrying blood away from the heart. An ascending aortic aneurysm happens when the bulge is located in the section of the aorta that is close to the heart, right where it begins to climb out of the lower left pumping chamber.
If left untreated, aneurysms can cause the wall of a blood vessel to split or burst, leading to death.
It’s very rare to survive an event like the one that happened to Wahl, said CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Tara Narula, who is a practicing cardiologist.
Narula said the blood in the sac around the heart is an indication that the artery wall had ruptured.
“Normally there’s no blood in that space. And what can happen is if there’s enough blood that gets in there, the heart essentially can’t beat because it sort of compresses the heart, and you can have a cardiac arrest,” she said, adding that she couldn’t comment specifically on what with Wahl, because she didn’t have any personal knowledge of his case.
Aortic aneurysms were the cause of death for about 10,000 people in 2019, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Aneurysms in the chest become more common as people age. They are slightly more common among men than women, according to the American Heart Association. They are usually caused by high blood pressure or sudden injury, or a history of high cholesterol or smoking.
Certain inherited conditions such as Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can make it more likely for a person to experience one.
Aortic aneurysm symptoms and treatment
Symptoms of an aortic aneurysm include:
- Sudden sharp pain the back or chest
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble breathing or swallowing
Not everyone will experience symptoms, even with a large aneurysm. Actor John Ritter died suddenly in 2003 from an aortic aneurysm while he was rehearsing on set.
If an aneurysm is caught in time, it may be able to be treated with medication or surgery.
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Aortic aneurysms have become more common over the last decade, increasing about 75%, according to the American Heart Association. Still these events are rare, occurring in about two out of every 100,000 people.
Because of their association with tobacco use, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all men who have ever smoked have an ultrasound screening between the ages of 65 and 75, for abdominal aortic aneurysms, even if they don’t have symptoms. Abdominal aortic aneurysms are bulges of that artery that could rupture in the abdomen.