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Creativity in the Operating Room Saves the Life of Renowned Chicago Sculptor

Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt was working on three large art pieces for important events, including the Ida B. Wells National Monument, when a serious health scare threatened his work and his life. Hunt had an acute Type A aortic dissection, a tear in the largest artery in the body. Repairing the deadly ailment required creativity from the cardiac surgery team at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.

“Mr. Hunt had a life-threatening emergency,” said Christopher K. Mehta, MD, director of the Code Aorta Program and a cardiac surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The majority of patients with ascending aortic dissections will die without immediate surgery. Without question, he needed an emergency operation.”

But the case was complicated. A CT scan revealed that Hunt not only had a Type A aortic dissection, but he also had active bleeding around his brain. That meant he couldn’t be given the blood thinner usually required during open-heart surgery because it could cause more bleeding around his brain and lead to his death.

Dr. Mehta and Heron E. Rodriguez, MD, vascular surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, came up with an innovative solution. They performed a minimally invasive procedure with an endovascular stent graft, which is used for diseases in the descending portion of the aorta but not in the ascending aorta.

With the endovascular approach, the graft is compressed within a stent. Instead of performing open surgery, the physician inserts the stent through the groin, moves it up to the aorta, and deploys it inside the vessel to reinforce the wall and prevent rupture.

“There is medical creativity and artistic creativity, and one can say there is an art to everything when done at a high level,” said Hunt. “It was a medical intervention of a very important sort.”

Hunt recently invited Dr. Mehta to his studio in Lincoln Park to see the progress he has made since his surgery in November 2020. While he still uses a walker for long distances, he has regained the upper body strength and core stability required to pound and shape his intricate metal sculptures.

“I’m honored to work with such a great team at Northwestern Medicine, where we can offer creative solutions for patients with complex cardiovascular problems,” said Dr. Mehta.

After his surgery and rehabilitation, Hunt finished the three large sculptures that were in the works when he suddenly became ill. He also spoke at the dedication of the Ida B. Wells National Monument. He said his near-death experience hasn’t inspired a new piece yet but added that you never know when lighting will strike.

“Thanks to Northwestern Medicine, my heart is beating, I can see and hear and keep on working,” said Hunt.