(Also see our video interview)
Bruce Russell knows he beat the odds by surviving. Unaware of the abdominal aortic aneurysm that had likely been growing in his body for years, he faced the most dire of health emergencies in April of 2012 when his artery burst.
Russell, 60, came home from work one afternoon in between projects for his Lincoln City-based contractor business. Suddenly, he doubled over with what he remembers as an excruciating pain in his abdomen.
“The pain continued to get worse, and at one point, I was unable to move from the counter in my kitchen to the phone so that I could call 911 — I felt my life draining,” said Russell. “At that moment my wife Jerelyn walked in and got me into the car and to the hospital.”
Russell arrived at the Emergency Department at Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital where doctors immediately began running tests. It was revealed that Russell was “bleeding out” — a large aortic aneurysm located in his belly had burst. Doctors knew his only chance for survival was immediate surgery.
“I don’t remember much from that day,” said Russell. “But I know that people acted quickly to save my life.”
An abdominal aortic aneurysm — also known as AAA — occurs when the walls of the artery become weak and bulge in the part of the aorta located within the abdomen. Some people with AAA experience symptoms such as a pulsating sensation in the stomach, or pain in the chest, abdomen or lower back. Others, like Russell, have no symptoms. In fact, most abdominal aortic aneurysms never cause problems — unless they grow large and rupture. In that case, the survival statistics are startling — 90 of every 100 people will die.
Doctors in Lincoln City knew that Russell would not survive the drive from Lincoln City to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis, where specialized surgical care is available. Fortunately, the REACH air ambulance team is on call 24 hours a day and was ready to transport Russell to Good Sam.
“I was in and out of consciousness, but I remember waking up as I was being loaded into the helicopter,” said Russell. “I was told later the entire process only took 26 minutes to get to the emergency room in Corvallis. That quick action is a big part of why I’m still alive.”
Another factor in Russell’s survival was the work of Toshio Nagamoto, MD, an experienced surgeon from the Samaritan Heart and Vascular Institute who specializes in vascular care and was on call at Good Sam when Russell arrived.
“We took Bruce straight into the operating room, where we needed to make a quick decision about how to proceed,” explained Nagamoto. “In the past, we would have performed a traditional open surgical repair, but it’s a very invasive surgery. We now can do a less invasive procedure called endovascular repair where a stent graft is inserted through the groin into the ruptured artery. Bruce met the qualifications in regard to anatomy and we made the decision to proceed.”
According to Nagamoto, stenting an AAA rupture is a relatively new option but the benefits are significant. Many patients who live through a traditional open procedure have serious post-op health issues due to the trauma inflicted on the heart and kidneys. “Bruce’s aneurysm was very large and there was a significant amount of blood where the rupture occurred,” said Nagamoto. “But we were able to repair the artery and stop the bleeding. His heart was strong and he beat the odds.”
Russell said when he awoke the morning after surgery, Nagamoto was right there to talk with him and explain what happened.
“I had the best care in Corvallis,” said Russell. “Dr. Nagamoto is one of the top-notch surgeons for what happened to me and I’m so fortunate he was on call that day. The nurses were amazing. I was discharged in just four days and I felt confident I would recover.”
Russell’s road to recovery wasn’t easy. He lost 25 pounds and needed to use a wheelchair for a number of weeks after his surgery. Russell called his wife Jerelyn a “trooper” who helped get him through the tough times and back to health. Today, he’s enjoying life with a new outlook.
“I’ve gone fishing and hunting and I’ll tell you I really appreciate things in my life more than ever now,” he said. “I’m just thankful. Everything worked out perfectly.”