Tonawanda News

December 13, 2010

WNY doctors, patients hope to raise awareness of aneurysm screening

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

TOWN OF TONAWANDA — This will be one very special Christmas for Town of Tonawanda resident Marlene DeVillier. She’s thankful she’ll be home with her family for the holiday. She’s thankful she’s alive.

DeVillier survived not only one, but two aneurysms that, along with other medical procedures, kept her in and out of the hospital from last December until this September.

In late 2009, the 77-year-old visited her primary care physician — Dr. David Johnson of Kenmore Family Medicine — for her yearly checkup. DeVillier felt fine, she had no idea she was sick, in fact, she had never even heard of an aneurysm before. But Dr. Johnson found something he didn’t like.

An aneurysm is a weak spot in a blood vessel that will balloon up and fill with blood and until it ruptures, people don’t tend to show many symptoms. DeVillier said she wasn’t sure if Dr. Johnson knew automatically that it was an abdominal aortic aneurysm he felt while pressing on her stomach, but he felt something and wanted to have it checked out.

“He saved my life,” DeVillier said, “that doctor saved my life.”

It’s because aneurysms are often only detected after it’s too late, that the doctors at the Vascular and Endovascular Center of Western New York are encouraging screening for the condition. Dr. Joseph Anain, who began the practice, is credited with performing the first FDA-approved stent graft in the treatment of abdominal aortic aneurysm. He, along with the other doctors at the center have partnered with the Catholic Health System to set up a yearly screening for abdominal aneurysms as well as peripheral vascular disease and coratid artery stenosis, which puts patients at an increased risk for stroke.

Dr. Roger Walcott, vascular surgeon and newest member of the Vascular and Endovascular Center, treated DeVillier for both the aneurysm located in her abdomen and also the one that later showed up in her chest — a thoracic aneurysm — after further tests. “It’s unusual that a patient will present with both at the same time,” Dr. Walcott said. “Unusual but not unheard of.”

Surgery to implant stent grafts, which help support the weakened area of the artery and keep the blood from flowing into the bulging area, was successful in stopping the aneurysms before they ruptured.

“Fortunately for her these were uncovered in a timely fashion because if they are uncovered when they become symptomatic or ruptured, there’s quite a high mortality rate associated with them,” Dr. Walcott said.

Risk factors for the disease include smoking, age, gender — men are more likely to suffer an aneurysm — and family history. DeVillier is not sure if anyone in her family ever had an aneurysm but she did smoke for 30 years of her life.

“I haven’t smoked in 17 years but the damage was already done before that,” DeVillier said. “If that’s what caused it ... I don’t know.”

Smoking is one of the few risk factors for the disease that can actually be controlled — a person can’t change their family history, age or gender, but they can stop smoking. And that’s why Dr. Walcott hopes to raise awareness.

“(Western New York) is one of the areas in the country where we’ve found that there is a little bit of a higher rate of patients with aneurysms,” Dr. Walcott said. “The reasons aren’t entirely clear but we do think that one reason is there’s a little bit of an older population and a higher percentage of tobacco users.”

Helping in the cause, Medicare now covers one-time abdominal aortic aneurysm screening for patients with risk factors: Men over 65 years of age who have smoked more than 100 cigarettes during their lifetime and women with a family history of the disease.

Every year we turn up either a couple of new aneurysms or folks undiagnosed with peripheral vascular disease. It’s been an effective tool to identify people,” Dr. Walcott said.

DeVillier has already talked to her four children about the disease, in fact her oldest daughter has already been screened and was found to be just fine.

 When asked if she has any advice for those who might be at risk, DeVillier said, “If you have a doctor, go to the annual physical ... because you really can’t tell.”

Contact Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 116.