Against the Odds

The sciatica pain was sudden, and excruciating.

“I’ve had two kids, so I know what pain is, and this was almost as bad as labor pain,” says Allen Park resident Serene Lane. “When I started throwing up, I went to the Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital ER.”

Serene had no history for pain like this, so the Wyandotte team did an initial CT scan. That’s when she got the news: She had an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and it had ruptured. Her sciatica pain had turned out to be a life-threatening emergency.

The aorta is the largest artery in the body, and it runs from the heart down to the abdomen, supplying blood to the body. When the wall of this blood vessel weakens, it can form an aneurysm, or bulge. If it ruptures, it can cause potentially fatal internal bleeding. In Serene’s case, the rupture was small and had begun to leak, which was causing the leg pain. They needed to address it, and fast, before the bleeding got worse.

However, her abdominal aortic aneurysm was located above the renal arteries that feed the kidneys, which is much less common and requires a more complex, open surgical procedure. The Wyandotte team referred Serene to the vascular surgery team at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit for emergency, specialized treatment.

The treatment process moved quickly

“I got to the Wyandotte ER at about 10 p.m.,” Serene says. “They took me by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital around midnight. The next morning, I was in surgery.”

Serene’s case was unusual for many reasons besides its location. At 57, she was young to develop an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which occurs most often in those who are 65 or older. It also affects far more men than women. Then there was the size. Her vascular surgeon, Dr. Timothy Nypaver, told her he typically only sees large aneurysms like hers on 80-year-old men.

“It was very scary,” Serene says. “Dr. Nypaver pulled up the image on screen and showed me how big it was, where it was located, and explained what they were going to do during the surgery.”

The major procedure would involve making a large incision in Serene’s abdomen, clamping the aorta above and below the aneurysm to temporarily stop the blood flow, cutting out the bulge in the artery wall and replacing this section with a long tube known as a graft.

Serene’s husband had undergone triple bypass heart surgery, so her family was no stranger to major surgeries. In addition, as a vet tech at Wayne State University, Serene had more medical knowledge than the average person, so she understood the risks of an open surgical procedure. “But it was still pretty intense knowing that you’re going to be cut open and on an operating table for eight hours.”

The surgery was a success, and Serene’s incision healed with no infections or other complications.

A long recovery

But after such a major procedure, Serene needed to give her body time to heal.

“I was in the hospital for 13 days and off work for three months,” Serene says. “I couldn’t do stairs at home, couldn’t shower myself and wasn’t hungry. I lost about 25 pounds.”

It also took a while to get her strength back. In her job, Serene does a lot of lifting, bending, pulling and pushing, and she had to slowly build up tolerance as her body healed. A year after her surgery, her follow-up scan looks good, and she will only need periodic monitoring unless she gets any other symptoms.

Looking back

Before her ER trip and surgery, Serene had never heard of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. She has a history of high cholesterol, which may have played a part, but also suspects her family history was a factor.

Serene’s father died of heart disease at 36. While she doesn’t know all of the details, because in the 1970s when he passed they didn’t have the same kind of diagnostics and treatments, it could have been an aneurysm.

“He probably would have lived if the same treatment options that I had existed back then,” Serene says. “Henry Ford took really good care of me. I’m grateful to Dr. Nypaver, the team at Wyandotte and everyone else who helped to save my life.”

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