Team Ritter NYC Marathon runners raise money, awareness of aortic disease

  • Share |
Team Ritter NYC Marathon runners raise money, awareness of aortic disease

Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D.

Team Ritter NYC Marathon runners raise money, awareness of aortic disease

Amy Yasbeck, founder of the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health

HOUSTON – (Oct. 2, 2012) – Actor Tyler Ritter; Watkins Little, the “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy;” thoracic aortic disease survivors and an aortic surgeon will be among the 15 Team Ritter runners dedicated to raising money for the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health (JRF) at the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 4, 2012.

“We are so proud and grateful to be one of the official charities of this year’s NYC Marathon and have the opportunity to raise much-needed funds for life-saving research and education,” said actress, writer and aortic health advocate Amy Yasbeck, the widow of legendary comic actor John Ritter, who died from an acute aortic dissection in 2003. “For Team Ritter, we looked for people who are passionate about increasing awareness of aortic dissection and its risk factors and committed to raising funds to support the JRF.”

Funds from the NYC Marathon raised for the JRF will go to the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases (JRRP) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to support research to identify genetic risks for aortic dissections. To donate, visit Edward Norton’s Crowdrise online fundraising community

“The funds raised by Team Ritter will allow us to continue our genetic research to identify genes or altered DNA that increases someone’s risk for an acute aortic dissection. By identifying who is at risk, we can prevent the premature deaths due to aortic dissections,” said Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., director of UTHealth’s John Ritter Research Program. “It will also help us spread information to both physicians and the public about symptoms and genetic risk factors for aortic dissections, including the fact that this condition can run in families.” Milewicz is also professor and George H. W. Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Research in the Division of Medical Genetics at the UTHealth Medical School.

A thoracic aortic aneurysm is a widening, bulge, or ballooning of the aorta, the major artery leading from the heart to the rest of the body. If an aneurysm is not treated or surgically repaired, it will enlarge over time without any symptoms and can cause a life-threatening event — typically an acute aortic dissection. In an aortic dissection, a tear occurs in the wall of the aorta, allowing blood to flow within the aortic wall. The dissection makes the aorta unstable, and it can rupture. Almost half of individuals with an ascending aortic dissection die suddenly. Those who make it to the hospital face emergency surgery. Aortic dissection has been ranked as high as the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for nearly 15,000 deaths annually. The majority of these deaths are preventable if individuals at risk are identified and the aortic disease is properly managed.

John Ritter, 54, died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection on Sept. 11, 2003 after he experienced chest pain while taping his ABC hit comedy “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” After John’s death, his brother was found to be at an increased risk for an aortic dissection and underwent surgery to prevent the dissection. Yasbeck formed the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health after John’s death and the John Ritter Research Program at UTHealth was established in 2010.

John’s son Tyler Ritter will be joined in the race by his wife, actress Lelia Parma, whose grandfather suffers from thoracic aortic disease. “By joining Team Ritter, we hope we can raise awareness that will help in effectively diagnosing and treating the disease at its earliest stages,” Ritter said.

Other team members include aortic disease survivors; family or friends of people who have suffered from aortic and other cardiovascular diseases; and medical professionals who treat patients with aortic disease. The following are stories of their very personal journeys to the starting line of the ING New York City Marathon.

Tyler Ritter grew up in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming either a baseball player or an actor, or, ideally, an actor playing a baseball player. Unfortunately, neither choice encouraged all that much running, so participating in a marathon seemed only possible if he were taking pictures from the sidelines and handing out water. Nevertheless, he has discovered a passion in raising awareness for thoracic aortic disease that has motivated him to take on this physical challenge. Ritter lost his father to this disease in 2003. Knowing that the aortic dissection that caused his father’s death was by no means a rare occurrence, Ritter has joined Team Ritter to run in the ING New York City Marathon in order to spread awareness and research, which he hopes will ultimately help in effectively diagnosing and treating the condition at its earliest stages. 

Lelia Parma was born in Argentina and from an early age loved performing musical theater. She worked professionally in Buenos Aires for six years before deciding to study theater-directing full time. In late 2007, she met Tyler Ritter and through his father’s story, she learned about aortic dissection for the first time. After they married, she found out that her grandfather was suffering from the same condition. Thanks to the advanced practices of his doctors and his family’s awareness of this problem, her grandfather’s quality of life has been greatly enhanced. Parma is proud to run for those affected with thoracic aortic disease around the world and continue to shed light on aortic disease.

Watkins Little, aka “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” raced into Internet fame this spring after a spectator’s photo of him went viral on the internet and earned him his new nickname. The photo also caught the eye of Team Ritter. “When I was approached by Amy (Yasbeck) to run for the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health, the title alone sold me on running for their marathon team,” said Little, 26, who was raised in Charleston, N.C., and now lives in New York City. “I, of course, knew who John Ritter was, but being able to raise awareness for thoracic aortic disease and cardiovascular health in general was the most important factor for me. I am extremely honored to have this opportunity.” Little, a public relations specialist in the music industry, first began running with his father through their suburban neighborhood at night. “Even qualifying for the marathon lottery was once a dream,” he said. “Last year, I was so pumped watching the marathon on TV, I ran over the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn to watch it firsthand and cheer everyone. Now, I have a cause that I am running for and that means so much more personally than just completing 26.2 miles.”

To counterbalance her intense training and career as an aortic surgeon, Ontario native Tara Mastracci, M.D., has been running since her medical school days. Now she is able to blend her interests together as a member of Team Ritter. Mastracci is on the staff of the Department of Vascular Surgery in the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic and is an assistant professor of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. "I am excited that these pursuits will now meet," said Mastracci, who has run five marathons. "I have dedicated my life to the treatment of aortic disease, and the patients I have encountered with aortic dissection prove to be a large source of inspiration. They are very quickly catapulted into a disease that will affect every aspect of their lives for many years to come. I am always so impressed the way they deal with the 'marathon' of aortic health with a positive outlook and a courageous spirit. These are the patients who will inspire me to run."

As a pediatric surgeon who has treated individuals with aortic disease, Jed Nuchtern, M.D., will be running the New York City Marathon in honor of the founder of modern aortic surgery, the late Michael E. DeBakey, M.D. DeBakey pioneered the surgical procedure for repairing aortic aneurysms—a procedure that saved DeBakey’s own life when his aorta dissected at age 94. “I have taken care of many children and adolescents with Marfan syndrome and would like to help raise money for research of aortic disease,” Nuchtern, 56, said. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that can lead to aortic dissection. Nuchtern started running while in college at Princeton and has nine marathons under his belt, but this will be the first New York Marathon for the native New Yorker. “I enjoy distance running because of the meditation and because it is so different from my daily work,” he said. “Living in Houston, the best time for me to run is before work. I enjoy being out on the roads when they are empty and getting into my groove. I enjoy running a marathon the most when I am on a team, so this is a great opportunity for me.”

As with many people born with a bicuspid aortic valve, radiologist Jonathan Kern, M.D., 49, did not know he was at increased risk for an aortic dissection. Instead of the three leaflets of a normal aortic valve, his had only two, allowing blood to backwash into the heart with every beat. While he was being treated for severe high blood pressure and palpitations in 2009, he had a renal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Because he was a radiologist, he carefully reviewed the MRI and barely saw the aneurysm that could have proved deadly if left undetected. He immediately underwent surgery to replace the valve and repair the large aortic aneurysm above his heart. “The surgery truly, profoundly changed my life. I no longer have the palpitations and anxiety that plagued me for at least 10 years,” said the Austin, Texas resident. “And now I have quality time with my kids for years to come.”

Tomball, Texas resident Catherine Quitania-Pool lost both her 62-year-old father and her 39-year-old sister to aneurysms. Her father’s abdominal aneurysm ruptured in 1997 during a camping trip. As a nurse who knew aneurysms often have a genetic basis, she encouraged her family members to watch for any symptoms. But 11 years after the death of her father, her sister unexpectedly died of an acute aortic dissection. “Aneurysms and thoracic aortic diseases do not care if a person is a grandfather, husband or father; a mother, wife, sister, or daughter; or even a famous actor, husband, father, or son like John Ritter,” she wrote in a letter to the John Ritter Foundation. “Symptoms of back pain or discomfort may be not be taken seriously and health care providers, unless aware of familial medical history, may not treat appropriately or because of insurance constraints, may not order the proper tests. Thoracic disease is a silent killer that leaves loved ones lost and in despair.” Quintania-Pool began running in her sister Marianne’s memory to begin to heal. “I started running because she could not. I started running because I could. I started running to find some peace for myself. I started running because I needed a place to go and feel alive again,” said Quitania-Pool, who has two teenage children and will turn 40 just before the race.

Six years ago, when Jonathan “Jonnie” Miller died suddenly of a thoracic aortic dissection as a result of suspected undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, Edward M. Cooning IV and fellow friends formed Jonnie’s Goodguys in his honor. Miller had planned to run the One America Mini Marathon in Indianapolis that year and his goal became their goal. The small group, committed to elevating awareness of Marfan syndrome, has grown into an organization that has raised nearly $2,200 for the National Marfan Foundation. It also donates to other charities and coaches new runners through training. This year, Cooning, 38, launched My Heart Run 2012 with a personal goal of running the five world major marathons in 2012, including the ING New York City Marathon. “It’s the goal of Jonnie’s Goodguys to educate and generally live a healthier lifestyle so that we are all around a little longer with our loved ones,” Cooning said.  

When Washington, D.C., resident Victoria Ramirez, 26, learned that the John Ritter Foundation would be one of the official charities of the ING New York City Marathon, she did not hesitate to ask to join Team Ritter. Not only could she raise money to fight a disease that had taken her aunt, but she could fulfill her longtime goal of running the prestigious New York City marathon. “Aunt Michele was fun-loving; the life of every party. Since that awful day more than three years ago, there have been good and bad days,” said Ramirez, whose aunt died suddenly from a thoracic aortic dissection at the age of 45. “I sometimes feel helpless to do anything when I reflect on what happened, and I miss her terribly – but the John Ritter Foundation has provided me with an opportunity to do something. If I can raise money to support research and awareness, maybe I can help someone else’s aunt, mother, daughter. I think Michele would be glad to know that I am doing something positive in her memory.”

As an operating room nurse, Nicole Kreisler has seen her share of what cardiovascular disease can do to patients. She also has fond memories of watching John Ritter in “Three’s Company.” So the Milwaukee resident was excited to learn that she will be part of Team Ritter at the ING NYC Marathon. “Jack Tripper’s character and physical humor gave my brother and me many laughs,” said Kreisler, who is married to a fellow marathon runner and has two children. “I think we know every episode by heart. With my work background, I have a great understanding of aortic and vascular disease. By running for the John Ritter Foundation, I am able to support someone I was fond of, as well as share information and educate people on an important disease.” A longtime runner, the 37-year-old has run four marathons in the last two years, including the Boston Marathon. This will be her first time in the NYC event.

Jaclyn Morrison’s father was her biggest fan, as well as her coach, when she trained for last year’s New York City Marathon. So after he died in February from a thoracic aortic dissection and she found out about Team Ritter, the Long Island native didn’t hesitate to apply for the team. “I think it will be so awesome and it’s what my dad would want me to do to help raise awareness,” said Morrison, 24, a graduate student and Lacrosse coach who works at the family business, Rose Fence. Her father, 55, had been in good shape, worked out regularly and liked to take eight-mile walks. So when he complained of loss of vision and pressure in his chest, it came out of the blue. He was rushed to a nearby emergency room in Brooklyn, where doctors ruled out stroke and heart attack. But they missed the dissection, she said, and when he collapsed in his room, it was too late. “Running the marathon allows me to make something positive out of a horrible loss. It’s like it’s meant to be,” she said.     

In 2009, with no known history of heart or aortic disease, then 37-year-old Amy Derksen was shocked to discover that she had a bicuspid aortic valve, a birth defect that led to a thoracic aortic aneurysm requiring immediate surgery. In a bicuspid valve, there are only two leaflets instead of the normal three, which allows blood to backwash and puts stress on the thoracic aorta. “At the time, I was busy raising an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old and I was in the best shape of my life,” said the Denver resident, who blogged about the experience. “I soon realized that I was so lucky and blessed that the condition was diagnosed before it was too late.” Now 40, the former public relations manager is a member of Mended Hearts and has visited patients in the hospital to share her story. She is also an avid runner with a lifelong goal to run a marathon. “I am passionate about telling people about aortic disease and passing on the Ritter Rules whenever the opportunity presents itself.  I proudly wear my scar as a reminder to live life to its fullest and be thankful for every day,” she said.

During her training, genetic counselor Alana Cecchi quickly learned the value of informing patients and their family members about the underlying genetic causes of many diseases and how important is it to be aware of family history. Now a counselor with the John Ritter Research Program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), she is on the front line of working with families whose members have been affected by thoracic aortic disease. “I have been fortunate enough to meet with many patients and families affected by aortic and other vascular diseases and to hear both the triumphs and struggles they have endured, said Cecchi, who is with the Division of Medical Genetics at UTHealth. “Increasing awareness and early diagnosis has saved lives, which is why I have decided to contribute to furthering research in the area of aortic aneurysms and dissections by running the NYC Marathon as part of Team Ritter to raise both money and public awareness for aortic disease.”

When Robin Plonsker’s father felt almost unbearable pain in the left side of his chest nine years ago, he thought he was having a heart attack. Robert Tauber, D.D.S., called his cardiologist, who told him to dial 911. The emergency operator asked careful questions about the pain. He told her it was the worst pain he had ever experienced, that it was not radiating into his left arm and he could almost point to exactly where the pain was located. She recognized the possible symptoms of an aortic dissection and set him on a treatment path that would save his life. If an aortic aneurysm is misdiagnosed as a heart attack and anticoagulants are administered to the patient, the patient can bleed to death through the dissection. “He was very fortunate in that the dissection occurred in his descending aorta and he had a 911 operator and a team of emergency department physicians and nurses treating him who recognized that he was not having a heart attack as he initially thought and did the imaging necessary to diagnose a dissecting aorta,” said Plonsker, a Larchmont, N.Y., resident. “Therefore, my father was given the medical treatment he required to address this acute, life-threatening situation. I know that others have not been as fortunate, and I am supporting this cause to raise awareness of aortic dissection and, I hope, improve the likelihood that it is properly diagnosed.”

Acute care nurse practitioner Monica Slack has daily encounters with patients who have suffered acute aortic dissections and aneurysms, as well as other cardiovascular diseases. Working in the cardiac surgical intensive care unit at The University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, she works hard to educate her patients about their disease. The 25-year-old is also a dedicated marathon runner and she didn’t hesitate to sign up for Team Ritter. “As someone who works with these patients firsthand, I would like nothing more than to combine my love of running with a cause about which I am passionate and feel as though I can incorporate into my daily work-life. These patients are often unaware of the function of the aorta, how it dissects and the high likelihood of mortality following perforation of the aorta. They are also unaware of the importance of blood pressure control in preventing aortic pathology,” Slack said. “A charity such as this one can contribute to preventative aortic health education in the outpatient/public spectrum.”

Deborah Mann Lake
Media Hotline: 713-500-3030