Gore flex: Averting aneurysms early

Aneurysms are back in the news. Just two weeks after UVA unveiled a dramatic new way to repair them and eight months after a Pantops-area doctor saved the life of a Charlottesville man by ordering an extra test, UVA is offering free screenings to catch the killer condition.

What's the catch? The screenings, slated to occur Saturday, April 9, are intended only for high-risk individuals: men above 60 and women above 65.

That wouldn't have saved the life of television star John Ritter, who died of a ruptured aneurysm two years ago at age 54. Or John Wade, the graphic artist who was 57 when he stepped into First Med, the Pantops-area office of Dr. Gaines Talbot last summer ["Out of the box: Doc's extra test saves life," Facetime, March 10 ].

"They may have some criteria for including younger people, but the yield is going to be pretty low," Talbot says. He's the one credited with saving the life of Wade by ordering the test that spotted Wade's rupturing aneurysm in time to begin emergency surgery in August.

Even the lucky patient understands the need for screening moderation.

"Screening is a very expensive enterprise," says Wade. "I don't think the medical community, especially the health insurance industry, is ready to underwrite just anybody."

"You want to screen the people who are most at risk," explains UVA Health System spokesperson Bob Beard. However, he adds, "If somebody's not over 60, and they have a family history, they're not going to be turned away."

In this case, the screenings are funded by Medtronic, a company that manufactures the metal "stent grafts" often used to treat these aneurysms. Medtronic subcontracts the work out to a mobile lab company called Lifeline.

An aneurysm is a blood-filled swelling in an artery, often caused by damage to the wall of the blood vessel. Abdominal aortic aneurysms, or AAA's, are particularly nasty. They can be blamed for up to 15,000 deaths a year and can be found in up to four percent of the population, mostly older individuals. So the free screening is getting a warm reception.

"This is the first one I've heard about in the area," says UVA Health System surgeon Nancy Harthun. She's particularly excited by Medtronic's screening method– advanced imaging technology which should be able to find almost any abnormality.

Interested patients are asked to complete a brief risk assessment, making this a "screened screening." The survey can be done over the phone at 800-772-8390. Those who qualify will be screened Saturday at the UVA Health System's Northridge facility on Ivy Road.

All this aneurysm attention comes on the heels of a pioneering new surgery UVA performed on March 24. According to Beard, the new FDA-approved surgery bypasses massive incisions and open-cavity surgery by wrapping potentially deadly aneurysms with Teflon-like material enclosed in a high-tech "corset." The device is manufactured by a division of W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex outdoor wear.

"You really avoid open surgery– where they have to move your heart to fix your aorta, which is extremely complex," says Beard.

Beard describes the first patient to receive the device as a 72-year-old retired mail carrier from Etowah, North Carolina. "He was in the hospital for three days– a real fast recovery," he says. "Now he's back in Etowah."

Talbot saved one life. Will UVA save more?