Against All Odds
By Michael Williams
May 21st started out like any other for Lumberjack Andrew Mattison. Before the day was over the 26-year-old timberjack would find himself in a battle for his life and an eight and one-half hour surgery with less than a five percent chance of survival.
That morning Mattison went to work at The Great Smoky Mountain Lumberjack Feud where he works as a performer. On this particular day he was meeting with three co-workers that were helping organize the Stihl U.S. Timbersports Competition. Mattison was seated at a desk in front of computer on a conference call with event organizers. In the office with him were co-workers and long-time friends Chuck Peters, Mike Downs and Matt Samler.
“I had just typed in some information and hit send when all of a sudden I collapsed and my head hit the keyboard,” recounted Mattison. “Chuck and Mike helped get me to the floor and Matt called an ambulance.”
The ambulance arrived and the attendants immediately administered an EKG to check his heart activity. The test showed no problems with the heart. Convinced it was merely an anxiety attack, the paramedics asked Mattison to calm down.
“In the ambulance I was in a lot of pain and I was getting loud,” said Mattison. “I kept asking them for a chest X-ray.”
Mattison was taken to Mount LeConte Hospital where he was given the chest X-ray he had asked for after waiting an hour and a half. The pain in his chest was at times excruciating. Finally, the doctor entered the room and quickly made arrangements to have Mattison airlifted by helicopter to Park West Hospital in Knoxville. Mattison’s insistence on a chest X-ray proved to be fortunate.
The X-ray revealed a problem the EKG could not detect. Mattison had several arteries leading to his heart that were hemorrhaging.
Mattison was born with a bicuspid aortic valve defect. The condition is similar to a heart murmur. His condition had been monitored throughout his childhood and he had never allowed the condition to hinder him from various activities and enjoying a full life. But, the X-ray revealed much more.
“I was rushed into emergency surgery and they cut me open and separated my sternum,” said Mattison. “Doctors realized with one look that I probably had something called Marfan Syndrome.”
Marfan Syndrome is a genetic condition of the connective tissue that often causes degeneration of the aorta and coronary arteries. People with Marfan tend to be unusually tall, with long limbs and long, thin fingers. Historians have long contended that Abraham Lincoln and country music legend Hank Williams Sr. suffered from the condition. Williams died at the age of 29.
While Mattison underwent more than eight hours of surgery his parents waited in the waiting room pondering their son’s fate. The procedure to repair the failing arteries was a risky one and rare. There had only been three such procedures at the hospital. Mattison would be the fourth such case and he was the youngest of the four patients. There were so many variables and so much that could go wrong. Due to the rarity of the situation, Mattison’s surgeons were treading into uncharted waters.
“When they opened me up they realized there was so much work that needed to be done,” Mattison said. “They could see the arteries were weak. Based on my build and the condition of the arteries they speculated I might have Marfan’s.”
Late in the afternoon, doctors met with Mattison’s parents and delivered the good news. He would survive. But it was against all odds. When doctors first examined the condition of his arteries they estimated he had less than a five percent chance of survival. He had a triple artery aneurism But, Mattison had beaten the odds. He awakened the next afternoon and saw his girlfriend sitting next to his bed. His first words were “tell me this is all just a dream.”
Mattison is slowly healing. Doctors are predicting a full recovery for the burly lumberjack. He must now carry a card that states he has metal in his sternum from the staples used to close his chest cavity.
He is not allowed to lift anything that weighs more than 10 pounds for the next six weeks. But, the prognosis is good. Doctors expect a full recovery and Mattison is anxiously anticipating a return to competing in the Great Smoky Mountain Lumberjack Feud.
“I had never been a religious man but after such an experience there is no doubt,” said Mattison. I am most grateful for the skilled surgeons that worked tirelessly and for the thoughts and prayers of family, friends and strangers, alike. Thanks to all for saving my life.”