Healthline: A silent killer

Published: Nov. 4, 2015 at 11:16 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 5, 2015 at 3:00 AM CST
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Ron Norton talks with Dr. Vince Weaver during a follow-up visit. (Source: WAFB)
Ron Norton talks with Dr. Vince Weaver during a follow-up visit. (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Imagine a five-month recovery time knocked down to 24 hours. It's possible thanks to advances in minimally invasive, life-saving surgery.

"Alright Mr. Norton, so how we doing?," Dr. Vince Weaver asked his patient at a recent follow-up appointment.

Ron Norton is finally feeling like himself again. It was a routine physical earlier this year that uncovered a ticking time bomb. Being a long-time smoker, Norton's primary care doctor ordered a low-dose CAT scan of the lungs.

"He called me back and said, 'Good news, you don't have lung cancer, but the bad news is you have an aneurism that's about five centimeters,'" Norton recalled.

An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a dangerous swelling of the aorta, the body's main artery. The prognosis is not good if it's left untreated.

"The thing is at some point it's gonna burst, and then you're not gonna survive it," Norton said.

He was referred to the Vascular Specialty Center inside Baton Rouge General's Bluebonnet Campus. The traditional treatment to repair a large aneurysm involves opening up the stomach and removing the damaged section of aorta. Recovery time is substantial, and the potential complications are dangerous.

Doctors decided Norton was the perfect candidate for an aortic repair without any incisions. It's a complicated procedure only done once before in Baton Rouge, and WAFB's cameras were invited to watch.

A team of surgeons, including Weaver, set out to insert a custom-made stent graft inside Norton's aorta to reinforce it.

"What we do is we have 3D reconstructions, and we can see where all of the kidney arteries are, the arteries that are going to the bowel, and then we custom design on the graft at certain clock positions to fit that one patient's anatomy," Weaver explained. "There are only a certain number of hospitals throughout the country that are able to offer this kind of specialized care."

To get that graft inside the patient, it's collapsed and fed through a large needle into the main thigh artery at the groin. The needle punctures at the top of each thigh were the only openings made during surgery.

Using precise imaging and careful movements of the wrist, surgeons watched on monitors as they snaked the graft into the aorta on a guide wire. Once in place, it was opened up to its full size. More guide wires were fed in to connect the graft to the kidney arteries. Dye was injected to confirm the correct placement, a crucial step to keep blood flowing to the vital organs.

The goal of the surgery is not to shrink the aneurysm, but stop it from getting any bigger. The graft should hold strong for many years to come.

Some four hours later, all the wires were removed, and Norton was left with two tiny holes. What could have been a recovery measured in months is now measured in hours.

"If he had open surgery, you know tomorrow he could be on a ventilator, he won't be eating for at least three days," said Dr. Joshua Wilensky, another surgeon in the OR. "This patient will probably be walking out of the hospital tomorrow."

"Now you can get back to your normal activities, you can cut the grass. You may not want to tell (your wife) that," Weaver joked during the follow-up.

One month after the surgery Norton has no complaints.

"Very fortunate, very fortunate, and I'm very grateful and very thankful for the team of doctors that I had," he said. "I call it the miracle of modern medicine."

He is now become an advocate for prevention and awareness. Medicare recently approved an ultrasound screening test for some patients at risk for AAA.

Risk factors include:

  • Men over age 60
  • A history of tobacco use
  • A history of heart disease
  • A family history of abdominal aortic aneurysms
  • High blood pressure or cholesterol
  • A sedentary job or lifestyle

"It's a silent killer. You don't know you have it. I had no clue that I had it," Norton said.

Ask your doctor if you think you could be at risk.

The medical name for Norton's procedure is "percutaneous endovascular aortic aneurysm repair (PEVAR)."

Click HERE for more information, or call the Vascular Specialty Center at 238-3018.

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