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Life-Saving Surgery Replaces Woman's Entire Aorta With Synthetic Version

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Nowadays, doctors can replace any number of body parts with man-made ones, including hips, knees, eye lenses, even heart valves.

And the medical advances keep coming.

CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez shares the story of a woman who had her entire aorta replaced with a polyester version to save her life.

Florence O'Sullivan needed a new aorta, because she has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that makes people especially tall and weakens their connective tissue, along with the aorta. If that ruptures, it's almost always deadly.

O'Sullivan always knew she was different than the rest of her family. She had eye problems, but the big difference was that she's much taller. No one thought much of it until her mother pushed her to get screened for the syndrome, because she resembled Olympic volleyball player Flo Hyman, who died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

"When I went, the lab called immediately and said you have a six centimeter aneurysm in your aorta and you need a valve replacement, and we need to do this right away," she told Gomez.

Florence had the aneurysm and aortic valve replaced several years ago. She later found out she had many other Marfan characteristics, like exceptionally loose ligaments and an extremely wide wingspan.

But it was her weakened aorta that had the chairman of cardio thoracic surgery at New York-Presbyterian concerned.

For more information about Marfan, click here

"Although the part that she had fixed her was working well, just passed it, the rest of the aorta was starting to stretch out and get big," Dr. Len Girardi, of Weill Cornell Medicine.

He showed Gomez 3D reconstructions of O'Sullivan's aorta. A CT scan shows a normal size aorta and then a huge aneurysm that could rupture at any time. Part of her aorta had already started to tear. That's when they decided to replace all of her aorta.

"We used these blood vessels to go to the liver, the intestines and to each kidney. So this decron, which has been around since the 1950s essentially, is really life saving," Giardi said. "This is what Ms. O'Sullivan has from here to here."

It's been just about 10 weeks since the surgery, and she is almost back to full activity.

"I am so joyful to be back in my life and to be living hopefully, healthily," she said. "I feel wonderful."

Girardi said O'Sullivan won't be able to play rugby or do kickboxing, but otherwise, her prognosis is excellent. She'll need to be checked with CT scans and echo-cardiograms, just in case. But her new heart valve and aorta should last a lifetime.

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