Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
March 20, 2024 ·  5 min read

Aortic Dissection Killed John Ritter…What His Widow Wants Everyone to Know About the Disease

It’s been 21 years since actor John Ritter died suddenly at the age of 54 while rehearsing on a television production set. Remember? The famous TV star from beloved classics such as “Three’s Company” and “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter?”

That passage of time, however, hasn’t slowed the passion or commitment his widow, actress Amy Yasbeck, has for trying to raise awareness for the silent and mostly unknown disease that killed her husband.

Yasbeck, the funny and fiery redheaded actress, spoke last week to Healthline employees about thoracic aortic disease and what the John Ritter Foundation is doing to raise money for research as well as educate people about the potentially deadly ailment.

In Fall 2018, she was joined at the Healthline offices by Deanna Korondi, whose husband of 28 years died last year of an aortic dissection. The women spoke tearfully of their sudden loss and the need for people to understand the disease as well as the importance of knowing your family history and the most effective medical exams to diagnose the disease.

What Is Aortic Disease?

“It’s just a time bomb,” said Korondi. “It’s not even ticking.”

Aortic disease kills more than 15,000 people every year in the United States. Here’s what you need to know about this deadly ailment…

Your aorta is the main vessel that transports blood away from the heart and sends it to the rest of your body. It’s shaped like a candy cane and is about the width of a garden hose. An aortic aneurysm happens when there’s a widening or a ballooning pushing out of the aorta. This usually happens at a weak spot in the aortic wall.

This condition can lead to an aortic dissection, which is a tear in the aortic wall that causes blood to flow within the layers of the aorta.

An aortic rupture occurs when the aortic wall tears open completely. In a dissection or rupture, the amount of oxygen and nutrients available to the body’s organs decreases.

There are three types of aortic aneurysms. A thoracic aortic aneurysm involves the ascending aorta, arch, or descending aorta.

Aortic aneurysms are the 13th leading cause of death in the United States. They cause an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 deaths a year, one of which was Ritter’s, who died at the age of 54 on September 11, 2003 from an undiagnosed aortic dissection while on set for “8 Simple Rules.”

He didn’t feel well and was taken to a nearby medical center. Among other things, they gave Ritter blood thinners, a type of medication that shouldn’t be given to someone with internal bleeding. He died later that evening.

Yasbeck said medical professionals misdiagnosed her husband’s condition as a heart attack, a common occurrence with aortic dissections. Within weeks of his death, Yasbeck formed the John Ritter Foundation and made it her mission to prevent this tragedy from striking other families.

“When aortic dissection is confused with heart disease, it’s fatal,” Yasbeck told Healthline.

In a 2017 special with The Washington Times, Yasbeck was asked if the John Ritter Foundation is her life’s work. Her response was both heartfelt and moving.

“My foundation is absolutely my life’s work. At the same time, I’m still acting and writing and writing music. I’ve got it all going on.

Every day I reach out to people and people talk to me about their experiences with aortic disease. The world has changed. People are able to reach out more easily and get information. My job is to make sure they get the current and most up-to-date information.

We’ve created this thing called “Ritter Rules” — 10 rules that are culled from the actual guidelines for the treatment of aortic dissection. That were not around when John passed away. They were published in 2010 by a group that I’m involved with.”

Prevention and Diagnosis

The John Ritter Foundation has a list of “Ritter Rules” that can help people recognize aortic disease.

They note that pain is the number one symptom. The discomfort is usually sudden and strikes the chest, back, neck, or stomach causing a sharp pain which usually lets people realize there’s something seriously wrong.

The foundation stresses that aortic dissection is a medical emergency. The risk of death rises by 1 percent every hour that diagnosis and surgical repair are delayed. The John Ritter Foundation also notes that there are only three types of imaging that can properly diagnose an aortic aneurysm or aortic dissection. They include a

  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • Transesophageal echocardiogram

Surprisingly, a chest X-ray or EKG won’t necessarily spot aortic problems.

A family history of aortic disease puts you at higher risk. There are certain genetic components that can affect connective tissue. For this reason, the foundation urges people with potential genetic risks to get tested for aortic disease.

There are also lifestyle and traumatic events that can increase your risk. Among them are:

  • an injury to the chest area
  • drug use
  • poorly controlled high blood pressure
Actress Amy Yasbeck wants families to know the symptoms of thoracic aortic disease, which kills an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people in the United States every year. Photo courtesy of The John Ritter Foundation

Yasbeck, whose credits include the television show “Wings” and the movie “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” travels the country, speaking to medical professionals, families, and others about the disease. She says she tries to inform people without frightening them.

“I try to be specific and real about the risk,” she said.

The foundation also raises money for research and awareness campaigns. Korondi is part of a “Team Ritter” group that’s participating in the New York City marathon on November 4 to raise funds.

Yasbeck says her traveling campaign is meant to touch families, so they don’t suffer through what she and Korondi have experienced.

“When you talk to people, you’re talking about their families,” she said.

For her personally, the work of the John Ritter Foundation keeps her connected to her late husband.

“I share his world with others,” said Yasbeck, “and that allows me to never run out of him.”