After five aortic surgeries gave him a second chance at life, “Chicago’s Aortic Man” wants to help others

Leon Darby, a tall African-American man wearing his "#AorticMan" cap, poses with a few members of his care team: vascular surgery resident James Oyeniyi, MD, aortic nurse Julie Park, RN, and vascular surgeon Ross Milner, MD
Leon Darby (second from right), proudly wearing his "#AorticMan" cap, poses with a few members of his care team: vascular surgery resident James Oyeniyi, MD, aortic nurse Julie Park, RN, and vascular surgeon Ross Milner, MD (left to right)

For most of his life, Leon Darby pushed his body to the limit.

A union construction worker who cut concrete for 20 years, the Lake Villa, Illinois resident also stayed busy raising his two children as a single dad and having fun with friends. Even into his fifties, Darby hadn’t given much thought to what was happening inside his body until one night in 2017, when he felt a searing pain in his chest.

He tried at first to push through the pain, but it got worse. Later that night, Darby was rushed to the University of Chicago Medicine, where he underwent his first open-heart surgery to repair a tear in his aorta, called a Type A aortic dissection, that was close to his heart.

Five aortic surgeries followed during the next few years.

“At this point, his entire aorta has been replaced,” said Ross Milner, MD, Chief of the Section of Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy at UChicago Medicine. “Each procedure carries some risk, so we took a stepwise approach to get him back to a good quality of life as safely as possible.”

After many months of recovery — many of which were spent in the mountains of Colorado — Darby regained the ability to do activities he once took for granted, including travel, working out and tying his shoes.

He now refers to himself as “Chicago’s Aortic Man” — like a superhero.

“I thank God that, because of my family and friends by my side and the team at UChicago Medicine, I’ve been given a new chance to live,” Darby said. “I feel like my life was saved so I can help people. My new aorta is connected to my heart, so I have a lot of love to give.”

Multidisciplinary team offers personalized aortic care

Although many people are used to hearing about the cardiovascular system as a whole, the “cardio” and “vascular” parts of the word are usually separate in the medical world.

Cardiac experts treat problems with the heart itself, while vascular experts treat problems with circulation in the blood vessels outside the heart. Aortic issues require the two departments to come together because the aorta is the largest artery in the body and, as Darby said, it connects directly to the heart.

“At some places, the two departments have trouble working together, which results in patients not receiving ideal care,” Milner said. “I get the chance to speak to medical experts all over the world, and it’s shown me that the level of collaboration between cardiac and vascular surgery at UChicago Medicine is really unique. When we stop to recognize it, we all appreciate it.”

Milner, a vascular surgeon, co-led Darby’s care with cardiac surgeon Takeyoshi Ota, MD, PhD, Co-Director of the Center for Aortic Diseases. They and other experts in the cardiac and vascular departments work hard to ensure that schedules align for shared clinical days and that lines of communication stay open and active.

Darby appreciated how the cardiac and vascular surgery teams worked together so closely.

“I truly didn't know the difference between teams. They were all working together to keep me whole,” he said.

Darby’s case was complex: after the initial tear in his aorta that caused a medical emergency, his follow-up care and monitoring revealed that there were additional weak points in his aorta, risking future tears and potentially affecting blood flow to key areas like the brain. He had a total of five surgeries to repair the aorta, place stents and optimize arterial blood flow.

Fortunately, the UChicago Medicine Center for Aortic Diseases (UCCAD) routinely takes on complex patients. Cardiac and vascular surgeons, along with nurses and other clinical experts, take the time to analyze and discuss cases so they can tailor treatment methods, procedures, devices and timelines to each patient’s needs.

“We always try to make things easier for patients,” said Julie Park, RN, a nurse who plays a central role in the aortic program. “For example, we know transportation is a hassle. We try to do imaging and other evaluations all in one day, and Dr. Milner sometimes even sees patients outside standard clinic days if needed.”

‘I got to know him as a person’

Between five surgeries, recovery time, long-term follow-up care and checkups, Darby has spent a lot of time with his aortic care team. Both he and the team members recognize the personal relationships they built over the years.

“We reached the point where I got to know Leon as a person, and he got to know me as more than just a vascular surgeon,” Milner said. “If you're having something that complex done, you have to trust the person who's doing it.”

Darby agreed, saying the risks associated with some of the later surgeries – including partial paralysis or damage to his brain or vocal cords – terrified him so much that he thought about getting a second opinion. But he decided to put his full trust in the experts he already knew so well. Even now, discussing his aortic care team brings Darby to tears.

“Every day I saw Dr. Ota, it perked me up,” Darby said. “Every day I saw Dr. Milner, it was special. They must have a million patients, and Julie seems to get to know every one of us personally. I love them as if they were part of my family.”

After each of his five surgeries, Darby had to endure long, challenging recoveries. He recalled becoming childlike at some points, needing help with basic tasks like bathing and preferring simple activities like coloring pictures. He felt discouraged and afraid each time he found out he needed another surgery, and he had to come to terms with being unable to return to his former lifestyle and career if he wanted to keep his heart safe.

But Darby persevered and took care of himself — partly because he didn’t want to disappoint the people who cared about him, including his aortic team.

“I want to tell the world: If you've got a problem like mine, this is the team you want,” Darby said. “They care for you, they do their homework, and they're true professionals who are the best at what they do. I'm living proof. It was an honor to be a part of what they do.”

Becoming ‘Chicago’s Aortic Man’

Darby’s last surgery was in 2022. He spent months recovering, working up strength to do the things he wanted to do and checking in with his doctors along the way. He started out by walking to his mailbox, and each time he told himself he’d go a little further, even if he needed to rest along the way.

After over a year, he was back to hiking, lifting weights and volunteering with youth sports. In October 2023, he was able to attend his son’s wedding and give a speech in his characteristic booming voice.

“It was beautiful,” Darby said. “I was dancing and crying and so happy to be alive and that I was there for this,” he said. “These are the things my care team told me to live for when I was leaving the hospital. I still can't believe I'm alive. This is the second part of my life.”

Now, he’s turned his attention outward, assisting his neighbors regularly and volunteering with local nonprofits such as Feed My Starving Children. He even has a baseball cap to label him with his superhero name: #AorticMan.

“I’m Chicago’s Aortic Man, not just any Aortic Man, because I’ve made my living here,” he said. “If it’s within my power to help someone, I’m going to do it.”

Leon Darby at the top of a snowy mountain holding an oxygen tank
Exactly one year after his fifth surgery, Darby triumphantly summited a mountain in Colorado with an oxygen tank.
Ross Milner, MD

Ross Milner, MD

Ross Milner, MD, is an internationally recognized expert in vascular surgery. He specializes in the treatment of complex aortic diseases.

Learn more about Dr. Milner

Center for Aortic Diseases

For over 100 years, the world-renowned clinicians and scientists at the University of Chicago Medicine have specialized in the diagnosis, care and management of all types of aortic conditions.

Explore our aortic disease services

Find an Aortic Disease Location Near You