Stuart Harder wasn’t expecting a follow-up phone call from his doctor after a routine check-up. Nor was he expecting that doctor to tell him that he needed surgery on a potentially life-threatening abdominal aortic aneurysm.
“I just remember thinking, what the heck is going on here?” Harder said, reflecting on the experience.
Harder was quickly referred to University of Minnesota Health Vascular Surgeon Rumi Faizer, MD, who specializes in aortic aneurysm repair. Faizer refers to aortic aneurysms as a “silent killer”—with good reason. Aortic aneurysms are a swelling and weakening in the wall of the aorta, the main artery in the human body. If the aneurysm is not found and identified, it may burst, causing significant and often fatal bleeding. Aortic aneurysms can occur anywhere along the length of the aorta. Aneurysms located in the lower portion of the aorta—in a person’s abdomen—are known as abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA).
To help doctors find and treat this hard-to-detect condition, Faizer has developed and implemented a new screening program. The program identifies patients at greatest risk for an AAA. Those patients are then given the option of an ultrasound test to determine whether an AAA is present, and—if one exists—to gauge the risk of a potential rupture.
Patients at highest risk for an AAA include men between the ages of 65-75, those who have a family history of AAA, or those who have smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, Faizer said. Men who haven’t been screened for an AAA in the last five years should receive a new screening, he added. As part of the new screening initiative, doctors are automatically notified when a patient meets these criteria.
Faizer said more than 1,500 patients have been screened and 29 aneurysms have been found with annual ultrasounds since the screening procedure was implemented in May 2016. Harder is the first patient who needed surgery.
“It’s a simple, non-invasive test that can likely tell us whether that person has a treatable condition. It’s life-saving,” said Faizer. Only 5 percent of men over the age of 65 will experience an aneurysm. But for those men, finding it early is essential.
“Basically, they are walking around with a ticking time-bomb,” explained Faizer.
As Harder can attest, a patient with AAA often shows no symptoms. Harder underwent surgery to repair the aneurysm. Just days later, he was back on his feet. A follow-up appointment with Faizer confirmed the surgery was successful.
“I feel grateful. I got a chance to live a little longer, and do things I might otherwise have not been able to do,” Harder said.
For his part, Faizer is also grateful. “I’ve been working on aneurysm screenings since I came into practice in more than 10 years ago. Finally, it is becoming a reality, and we’re saving lives.”
But that long road is not over yet.
“This is just one aspect of our work to improve aneurysm treatment,” said Faizer. “I hope we can take it even further in the future and improve our ability to detect and prevent aneurysms.”