Roxanne Hanks, an independent insurance broker from Simi Valley, is living proof that aneurysms are not always a deadly condition. Hanks’ own subtle yet persistent symptoms were in fact signs of an aortic aneurysm.
“I was healthy, I exercised and still worked full-time,” said Hanks, 61. “But I often felt lightheaded and short of breath from minor exertion, like walking a flight of stairs. I was insistent that my doctors keep searching for the answer.”
Her insistence paid off. After months of medical tests and doctor visits, she received the diagnosis — an aortic aneurysm — and headed straight to the Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute.
Aneurysms are the weakening, or bulging, of blood vessels that can rupture and become life-threatening. And although they can happen anywhere in the body, aneurysms most commonly occur in the brain, or in the main vessels that lead to the heart, legs and arms. This was the case for Hanks, whose aneurysm was wrapped around most of her heart.
For decades, many have considered aneurysms a death sentence, but thanks to innovative, minimally invasive procedures, many can be treated before they become critical.
“If detected early, there are new interventions like a minimally invasive catheter-based procedure to treat the condition,” said Ali Azizzadeh, MD, director of Vascular Surgery at the Smidt Heart Institute. “Historically, we had to fix a blood vessel by hand, which meant open surgery and the higher risk that comes with that. But today, we can fix the problem from the inside, without always having to open up the patient.”
Risk factors for aneurysms include heredity, smoking, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. And while some aneurysms can cause pain, most present no symptoms — which is why they have long been coined a “silent killer.”
Hanks, though diagnosed early, had a highly complex case. Before she could undergo a minimally invasive procedure, she first had to have open heart surgery performed by Fardad Esmailian, MD, surgical director of Heart Transplant at the Smidt Heart Institute, to repair the front part of her aorta.
Two months after open-heart surgery, Hanks was back at Cedars-Sinai for her final, minimally invasive surgery under the expert care of Azizzadeh. Instead of opening Hank’s chest, Azizzadeh instead used a catheter-based technique.
“Dr. Azizzadeh’s pioneering work continues the Smidt Heart Institute’s tradition of developing new, faster, smaller and safer alternatives to the treatment of deadly illnesses,” said Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, director of the Smidt Heart Institute.
“Because of these two physicians, I became a grandmother for the first time,” said Hanks. “I’m also back to work, back to exercising and living a fulfilling, great life.”
The key, Azizzadeh stresses, is early detection. He suggests that if you have unexplained pain, coupled with any risk factor, it’s important you talk to your doctor and mention aneurysms.
“Listen to your body,” Hanks said. “I knew something was wrong, but I kept searching and ultimately ended up with the best doctors and care team who saved my life.”