Profiles in Heart Disease: John Ritter

About the Misdiagnosis That Led to His Death

Late actor John Ritter at 4th Annual Family Television Awards. Getty Images Entertainment/Vince Bucci/Stringer

A sudden onset of nausea and chest pain misdiagnosed as a heart attack ended with the death of actor John Ritter on Sept. 11, 2003. Heart disease was the culprit: The 54-year-old sitcom star had actually suffered an aortic dissection: a tear in the wall of the largest blood vessel in the body, the aorta.

Ritter, who starred in the popular 1970s sitcom "Three's Company," had a significant family history of heart disease: his father, Western star Tex Ritter, died of a heart attack, and his mother suffered a major stroke.

About the Misdiagnosis

The confusion in diagnosing aortic tears is common because the condition very closely resembles heart attack symptoms. Heart attacks are a much more frequent occurrence, experienced by 920,000 people and resulting 157,000 deaths annually. Aortic tears strike about 10,000 Americans a year and takes about 7,500 lives.

Ritter's widow, Amy Yasbeck, lost a 4-year legal battle to hold her husband's doctors liable for his death, which occurred hours after he was rushed to a Burbank, Calif., hospital from the set of his hit sitcom "8 Simple Rules... for Dating My Teenage Daughter." Yasbeck argued that the doctors should have performed a chest x-ray or imaging scan that might have detected the rip in her husband's aorta. Instead, they treated him with blood thinners, a standard procedure for a blockage that leads to a heart attack.

What Is Aortic Dissection?

The rapid progression of aortic dissection - a highly unpredictable event that causes blood to seep and then burst through the artery, causing massive internal bleeding - is proven to be genetic.

Ritter's brother was tested after the actor's death and found to have the same condition, which in his case was successfully repaired surgically. Those who suffer from it have a 50 percent chance of passing the condition to their children.

One of Ritter's doctors testified during the liability trial that he warned Ritter after a 2001 imaging scan that he had coronary artery disease in three major vessels.

Yasbeck said her husband had never mentioned this information to her, and it wasn't stated in reports about the trial whether Ritter's doctors had recommended surgery or other treatment.

The John Ritter Research Program

Following Ritter's death, Yasbeck and members of the Ritter family teamed up to create the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The program seeks to prevent premature deaths caused by aortic dissection by studying the genes and other factors that contribute to the disease.


"Actor John Ritter's Death May Raise Awareness of Aortic Dissection, aRareand Often Fatal Heart Condition." 12 Sep 2003. University of Michigan Health System. 10 Dec 2008

"At-a-Glance Summary Tables." 2008. American Heart Association. 5 Sep 2008 

Celizic, Mike. "John Ritter's Widow: 'The Jury Has Spoken'." 20 Mar 2008. MSNBC.

Deutsch, Linda. "John Ritter's Widow Testifies in Death Suit." 3 Mar 2008. USA Today. 

"Genetic Basis of Aortic Aneurysm and Dissection." 10 Mar 2008. The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.  

Continue Reading