The Hands of a Surgeon

My partner, Lee Kirksey, Vice-Chair of Vascular Surgery, just got a paper on-line (link) about the curiously increasing volume of open surgical repairs we were experiencing from 2010-2014 at the Cleveland campus of the Cleveland Clinic. When I joined in 2012, my impressions at that time were mostly the paucity of straightforward EVAR cases that I had seen in private practice, and the high prevalence of stent graft explantation, infected aortic grafts, and open aortic aneurysm repairs (OAR) for juxtarenal and thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysms for nominally high risk patients. My TAAA muscles had atrophied during my years out of fellowship and I eagerly took the opportunity to recruit the help of my partners and scrub in on these cases with Pat O’Hara, Jean Kang, Dan Clair, Ezequiel Parodi, and Lee Kirksey. It is without any shame that I sought out not just extra expert hands, but interrogated these experts for different ideas and approaches, and absorbed feedback. At the time, I was ten years removed from graduation, a full-fledged vascular surgeon who thought he could do any operation put before him. I cannot imagine the thoughts churning through the head of a recent graduate faced with the choice of taking on an open aortic operation with only 5 cases under their belt, referring the case on to the regional tertiary center, or trying to McGyver an endovascular solution. I contributed probably about 35-50 cases to this paper, but the outcomes were a collective effort. Even today, I will run cases by Sean Lyden, Christopher Smolock, or Lee, if only for the company and gossip.

“We explain this distribution of cases as a function of several factors: a unique, broad regional quaternary referral practice whereby patients with complex aneurysmal disease are referred to our institution; an institutional practice evolution resulting from a critical analysis and understanding of EVAR failure modes that lead to explantation, thus generating a different perspective in the EVAR vs open decision-making process; a parallel high-risk IDE fenestrated graft study; a historical willingness to accept all physician and self-directed patient referrals (ie, a willingness to manage more complex cases); and a published expertise in the area of EVAR device explantation with an annually growing volume of commercial device removals” -from El-Arousy et al.

Reading through that paper, I have come to the conclusion that the increasing open aortic volumes at the Cleveland campus has as much to do with the ongoing retirement of experienced surgeons regionally as it does with the ability to attract these cases. Loss of these surgeons has a cascade effect like losing a species in an ecosystem. The operating rooms forget where the OMNI retractor is because nobody asks for it anymore. The ICU’s are no longer familiar with the ebb and flow of the postoperative open aortic operation. The floors lose institutional memory of the care of these vascular patients as the stent grafts and interventions go home within 48 hours, sometimes the same day.

If you were a vascular surgeon born before 1970, your approach to the scenario of the ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm may differ substantially from that of surgeons born after the Carter administration. Most of my cohort, Gen-X and older, feel comfortable applying some betadine, opening the belly and placing a clamp. Those younger than us have told me they feel more comfortable putting up a large balloon and deploying a stent graft. In this generation, it is normal to call a general surgeon to decompress the abdominal compartment syndrome and manage the abdominal vacuum dressing. For our generation, the giant industrial robot arms and 80 inch monitors creates a barrier to the problem at hand, and gathering all the extra staff after hours and on weekends requires the logistical skills of a wedding planner.

We prefer an operating table, a willing anesthesiologist, a cooler full of O-neg blood, Prolene and a graft, strong suction, and an extra set of hands. The data suggests either method is equivalent in outcome, but I would argue that depending on the circumstance, there is an optimal method for that patient and you have to have the ability to do either open or endovascular or some hybrid combination. Unfortunately, it is clear that open vascular surgery is year over year diminishing, and and it might not be so great when we start rupturing our aneurysms.

The open approach is preferred because we got good at it by doing a lot of these cases. Your hands -it becomes natural to change the course of the disease and the fate of the patient with your hands. One of the things you lose with a wire based approach is the tactile feedback from the organ that you are treating. Yes, there is a subtle feedback from the flexible tip of a Glidewire, but that’s missing the point. The thing that is rarely considered with open surgery is the tactile aspects of operating.

Your fingers are your point of care ultrasound. As an intern, one of my earliest tasks was reaching in through a 2cm incision with my index finger, feeling for what I would describe as a rotten shrimp, and delivering it out by hooking my distal phalanx around its base. Adhesions were rubbed like money between finger and thumb to judge if you could bovie through it. If you felt a sliding sensation, it was mucosa to mucosa and you looked for another spot to cut. Into my fellowship which could be called the triple-redo, no-one else wants to do-, difficult vascular operations fellowship, the pulse or the plaque felt under the finger would guide me to carve away scar tissue from blood vessel, visualizing the feedback from the fingers. In a rupture, with the belly under a dark mire of blood, there is no seeing, only feeling. Your hands reach into the lesser sac or transverse mesocolon and strangle the aorta -your fingers while clamping, feel and avoid the caudate lobe, the NG tube in the esophagus, and split the crura of the diaphragm like a pick pocket. Once the pulse returns as anesthesia refills the tank, you scratch free the aorta with your thumb and forefinger, then slide the jaws of the aortic cross clamp over your fingers and against the spine and clamp. This takes about 60 to 90 seconds (link).

When a patient is bleeding out, this is the way to control the bleeding. In practice, no amount of rehearsing for getting a patient into a endovascular suite, getting airway and access, swinging in the industrial robot arm, and getting everyone into lead aprons, sending up wire, placing a 12F sheath and an aortic occlusion balloon, will be satisfactorily smoothly and efficiently as a STEMI or STROKE alert. The rAAA is for most hospitals, unless you are in Seattle, a once in a while occurence. Many more people can find a scalpel and an aortic clamp than they can find a 32 inch aortic balloon, a stiff exchange length wire, and a 12F sheath.

When a patient presents with a slowly bleeding, contained rupture, there is time to assemble the teams required for an endovascular repair, and for opening and decompressing the abdomen, for anesthesia to get IV’s, central lines, arterial lines, and order crossmatched blood. One has the time to get and review CT scans and choose grafts. One can even do things backwards, debranching after securing the leak (link) with a stent graft. The luxury of time should signal to you that the endovascular option is the preferable route, as all the advantages of minimally invasive repair are possible. Rural hospitals sending patients two hours by ambulance or arranging for a helicopter -this is the great filter through which those likely to survive make it into the endovascular suite. These patients do great with EVAR, because everything moves more or less like a routine elective EVAR.

The setting up the operating room for tackling rAAA is quite simple. Keep everything nearby. Nothing should ever be stored out of sight, retrievable only by arcane codes whispered in the ears of people down in the basement or across the street. Amazon gives itself a day to get that gadget to you, but the rupturing patient does not have the time to have a 28mm stent graft ordered by looking up a Lawson number, finding the materials person in the faraway room to find it, running it over a city block. The stuff has to be next to the OR. Every scenario is unique, and the best planning is assuming no one person knows where everything is but everything is close at hand -major vascular sets, retractors, C-arm, cell saver, stent grafts, open grafts, balloons, cardiopulmonary bypass -every gewgaw is few steps away. The inventory is what you see, because if you can’t grab it, it does not help the hemorrhaging patient.

If you are a vascular surgeon born after 1980, it is likely that you may have trained in a 0-5 residency and all the old people harumphing about the old ways seem biased. Rather than being rational about their awful upbringing, the old people seem to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, turning from victims of a harsh and brutal system inherited from the original, Halsted, a cocaine addict, to willing collaborators now mooning about the good old days of every other day call and 120 hour work weeks.

There might be a growing suspicion about advocating for open surgery when fewer people can perform it. One of the truisms of surgery is if only one surgeon claims to be able to do a rare operation with great results when everyone else abandons it, like venous valve surgery or robot assisted mastectomies, it can mean that surgeon might be uniquely talented or shamelessly selling something. It is a shame that open vascular surgery is devolving into that category of arcana, like the Jedi. I have no doubt that the last open vascular surgeon will be a reclusive, bitter, wild eyed hermit like Luke Skywalker was in episode VIII, if we let it get that far.

Bald eagles were saved from extinction. The methods of species reclamation may be what is needed to save open vascular surgery. Financial metabolism drives behavior, and there must be recognition of the time and dedication required to perform good open vascular surgery in the form of increased RVUs and reimbursement. The surgeons retiring in their mid 60’s with straight backs and steady hands need to be incentivized to stay around and coach the next generation in the ways of the Jedi. Call it the master surgeon designation. Every 0-5 graduate needs to focus on getting 100 leg bypasses, 50 carotid emdarterectomy, and 25 open aortas within the first five years of practice with a master surgeon if they did not get this experience during training. Like dead Jedi, it would help even if they were just virtually present, shimmering on Facetime in their (bath)robes to go over planning and approaches, but being physically present and reimbursed for it would make the most sense.

There is always self service in any human activity. One mildly prominent vascular surgeon that I have come across is famous for saying he did not have a vascular fellowship because he did not want to train his competition. It is easy for the fifty somethings to sit and proffer their open skills and profit from its scarcity but it goes against decency to not pass on this collective body of hard won knowledge and skills. There must be stewardship of this great thing we do, this honorable and treasured endowment.

Of the concrete ways we are trying is creating a network of advanced open surgery capable surgeons regionally organized by Martin Maresch, capitalizing on social media and electronic communications. Here at CCAD we are in the organizing phase of a vascular residency, and I very fortunate to have Houssam Younes join us as he shares my interest in surgical education and open vascular surgery. We are contemplating a non-accredited fellowship. We have general surgery residents coming through our service as well as medical students.

One of my mentors told me, “I can train a monkey to do cardiac surgery,” as he was training me to do cardiac surgery. And he was right. The final comment I have is you have to demystify surgery, take away the Instagram perfection, the romance, and list in practical terms the toolkit of maneuvers that form the component parts of all operations and propagate it. Let us not kid ourselves. The technical skills of surgery can be taught to anyone. The Mayo brothers were performing surgery as teenagers before medical school. The knowledge and experience and judgement -that varies as much as people vary and we have a curriculum for that, but the physical acts of surgery need to be taught starting at the medical school level. Standardized drills and exercises need to be created so that proficiency can be metered.

“The individual per trainee OAR volume did not decrease during this period. In the training program, the use of “component separation” (separation of each
operation into discrete, instructionable steps that facilitates trainee mastery) is integral to instruction of open aortic aneurysm repair techniques and permits the
trainee to master all of the technical exposure and repair skills necessary to address and to manage both straightforward and complex aneurysm anatomy. Component
separation is essential to maximize trainee experience across all levels” –from reference 1

Here is my list of things a trainee must accomplish by the time they graduate from a vascular residency or fellowship.
1. Tying knots with gloves on with 6-0 Prolene inside a pickle jar without lifting or moving a 12 ounce lead fishing weight to which the suture is being tied, fast, one handed, two handed, left and right handed.
2. Holding forceps, needle holders, and clamps
3. Correct operation of the OMNI retractor, Weitlander retractor, Balfour retractor, Thompson retractor
4. Incise skin through dermis through correct depth and length with both #15 and #10 blade
5. Open the abdomen through midline and flank incisions and close these incisions
6. Harvest saphenous vein
7. Vascular anastomosis on a table, inside a pickle jar, inside a short Pringle’s can
8. Dissection of adhesions and scar tissue around blood vessels and organs
9. Dissect and expose the common femoral artery via vertical and oblique incisions and close these incisions
10. Dissect and expose the carotid bifurcation, left and right side, and close these incisions
11. Dissect and expose the tibial vessels in various parts of the leg and foot
12. Dissect out the brachial artery at the elbow
13. Dissect out the axillary artery and vein below the clavicle
14. Dissect out the axillary artery and vein from the axilla
15. Dissect out the subclavian artery, vein, and brachial plexus above the clavicle
16. Dissect out the arm veins
17. Dissect out the iliac artery via a lower quadrant pelvic retroperitoneal exposure
18. Dissect out the abdominal aorta via midline laparotomy
19. Dissect out the abdominal aorta via retroperitoneal approach
20. Dissect out the thoracoabdominal aorta via a thoracoabdominal exposure
21. Dissect out the popliteal artery via suprageniculate, infrageniculate incisions and prone position
22. Dissect out the inferior vena cava
23. Dissect out the iliac veins
24. Harvest deep femoral vein
25. Temporal artery biopsy
26. Endarterectomy of carotid, femoral artery, any artery with patch angioplasty
27. Exposure and control of supraceliac aorta, suprarenal aorta for clamping
28. Exposure and control of thoracic aorta
29. Exposure and control of the great vessels via sternotomy and supraclavicular incisions
30. Exposure and control of the vertebral artery
31. Safe removal of vascularized tumors
32. Amputations of digits, legs and arms up to pelvis and shoulder
33. Exposure and control of radial and ulnar arteries
34. Hand surgical techniques of exposing arteries, tendons, and nerves in forearm and hand
35. Plastic surgical techniques of skin grafting and basic rotational flaps
36. Fasciotomy of arms and legs, hands and feet.
37. Exposure and control of celiac axis
38. Exposure and control of superior mesenteric artery
39. Exposure and control of left renal vein
40. Exposure and control of hepatic veins, portal vein
41. Exposure and control of renal arteries
42. Exposure and control of profunda femoral arteries
43. Safe removal of spleen
44. Transabdominal retroperitoneal exposures of the abdominal aorta and inferior vena cava
45. All of the above in a reoperative field
46. All of the above with limited visualization and by sense of feel only
47. Laparoscopic and thoracoscopic techniques
48. Orthopaedic surgical techniques of myodesis, bone grafting, precision osteotomies, infection control, external fixation, spinal exposure
49. Safe resection and anastomosis of bowel
50. Drainage of infection
51. Intensive care of SIRS, MOFS, CHF, Septic shock, postoperative fluid shifts
52. Nonsurgical and surgical management of lymphedema, seromas, and edema
53. First rib resection
54. Spinal exposure
55. Organ harvest and transplantation
56. Planning of complex open, hybrid, and endovascular procedures

Every year, it is apparent that endovascular options suffer from some flaw when outcomes are studied beyond 2 years, but progress will march on in that sphere. It has to. The loss of open capable surgeons to early retirement is accompanied by overapplication of endovascular techniques at least partly due to the lack of knowledge of these open surgical options and achievable good results and partly due to financial incentives. The solution lies in redistribution of reimbursement to open procedures and creation of open surgical fellowships and identifying and empowering mentors who still walk among us.

The Mid-Century Vascular Surgeon

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A Mid-Century Modern Chair

Mid Century Modern is a design philosophy from the mid twentieth century that seemed terribly dated and out of style while I was growing up but now seems to have come back as people dig around their parents and grandparents’ stuff. Television shows like Mad Men and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are rotten with mid-century design. Yet it is an apt term for vascular surgeons of a certain generation like me who at about fifty years of age remember a time when vascular surgery was about big incisions and bypass grafts. We were trained in open vascular surgery and rode along with (or were drowned by) the tsunami of endovascular techniques that have come to dominate. Most of us learned to do them as well. Mid-century vascular surgeons straddle the divide between our mentors who, like me, specialized in vascular after completing general surgery training and the current trainees who have trained solely in vascular surgery. At one time it was fashionable to believe that we were fossils. But, like the coelacanth discovered after an eon’s absence, guidelines and recommendations are being made for open surgery which is supposed to be making a comeback. But it turns out, open surgery-capable vascular surgeons are, like the coelacanth, rare, and endangered. Unless we completely change the way we train people today, open vascular surgery will become extinct. At first glance, it does not look good.

The Dinosaur
My first ever encounter with a vascular surgeon was in 1989, as a lab tech in Boston the year after I graduated from college. It was at the West Roxbury VA Hospital, and like the vets, this one chain smoked in his office. Friendly enough, but a bit aloof, he rasped out well elocuted English in the same way soldiers did in old war movies like The Longest Day. Laconic and Robert Mitchum-like. He would have been among the first generations of vascular surgeons, contemporary to Jack Wylie, Michael DeBakey, and other luminaries. He couldn’t have cared less, I believe, as he performed fem-pop and aortobi-iliac and femoral bypasses and carotid endarterectomies with a furious incandescence that didn’t jibe with his reserved demeanor outside the OR. He was equally fierce to the residents when he had to scrub in to get them out of jam. But he was kind to the medical students and pre-meds like me. His type of surgeon is most definitely extinct, remembered only in old war stories like this.

What is it about my generation of surgeons? We remember things and balance the new against the old ways. We remember a time before work hours restrictions but are young enough to understand why it is not too healthy to work 120 hours a week. Yet we are also conflicted about the benefits we retained from that kind of training, now viewed with about as much approval as Sparta’s agoge system of child abuse and military training. I trained at the outset of laparoscopic surgery, so I did about 50 open cholecystectomies before learning how to do laparoscopic cholecystectomies. Most of my appendectomies were done open. As were my colectomies, gastrectomies, thyroidectomies, mastectomies, and yes, aortic surgeries, carotid endarterectomies, arteriovenous fistulae, and leg bypasses. And I did them.

We All Agreed…
This was the deal. You worked at 110%, fell exhausted and gave a little more, and you were rewarded. That meant being up all night on call, but after morning rounds, you could turn your pager off and operate all day. If you were learning, you had to be prepared by knowing the patient, the disease, the anatomy, and the operation. If you were teaching, you had to have the approval of the attending who would be somewhere nearby, and never happy if you grabbed them. If you were chief resident, you were basically junior staff and expected to run your service like a practice. The leash was longer for those who could, and short for those who could not. In the grade before mine, it was pyramidal, meaning there was attrition of those who could not progress. Like ringing the bell at Navy SEAL school in Coronado, people quit. Or were, rarely, fired. Being categorical was seen as a kind of entitlement by the disbelieving chiefs welcoming the new categorical interns. Dishonesty was the worst sin, but weakness, like showing fatigue or expressing a desire to have a life outside of work, was equally bad. And training was long. Four years of medical school, followed by five years of general surgery residency with mine extended by a year of research between third and fourth year, and then followed by a two-year vascular fellowship. By the time I was a full-fledged vascular surgeon, I had college friends who had actual homes and summer homes, children, divorces, and travels around the world. They had lived real adult lives. I started out on life at 35 where everyone else had done it at 21. But I had 1600 cases in my residency, of which over 300 were major vascular including 50 open aortic cases, and nearly 500 cases during my fellowship, adding another 100 aortic cases, most of them open, as it was the first years that EVAR was introduced. Nothing better in the world than to start a case with Ken Cherry quipping over your shoulder -“make me proud.” I finished my endovascular training apprenticed to Dan Clair during my first staff job at Columbia P&S -cue Dan intoning “you’re killing me” over the Cath Lab’s PA from the control desk on the weekends we had time in there.

There is no going back…
That represented one way of training a vascular surgeon. Even after graduating, I never stopped learning and perfecting my craft. The two years at Columbia gave me insight on how to run a practice completely alone -I was the lone vascular surgeon up at the Allen Pavilion on the northern tip of Manhattan next to Baker’s Field. It taught me the critical importance of availability and extracting useful information over my tiny flip phone. During my private practice years in Iowa, I learned the amazing productivity that can be attained when you work in collaboration and partnership with cardiologists and cardiac surgeons -something I do today here in the Heart and Vascular Institute. I also learned how to use vascular technologists and the lab as a force multiplier. And it was during the Iowa years that I underwent a period of endo-enthusiasm followed by a realism and I performed over a hundred aorto-bifemoral bypasses on middle aged patients with an average length of stay of 3 days, no deaths. When I plunged back into academia, taking a position at Cleveland Clinic, I was apprenticed again to Dan, but this time in understanding how to use the whole clinic as a tool for taking impossibly challenging patients through to an acceptable resolution. All of that started with those frantic days on call as an intern at St. Luke’s Hospital, drawing blood cultures, placing IV’s, babysitting traumas in the CT scanner, and putting chest tubes into the perforated. But there is no going back. It is most definitely probably illegal today to subject people to the intensity and duration of experience that I went through. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for all the treasure in the world (although I do regret not buying Apple, Dell, and Microsoft in 1994).

What a completely trained vascular surgeon can do
The hardest case that I have taken care of ever was at the Clinic a couple of years ago. The patient was a middle aged man who had ruptured an aortic aneurysm in another state some months prior and had undergone a repair complicated by a pancreatic injury along with some enterotomies resulting in a graft infection along with high output pancreatic and enteric fistulae from an open abdomen. He arrived cachectic, in septic shock and had a pseudoaneurysm from the distal anastomosis of a short tube graft. I immediately took him to the OR to place a stent graft across the pseudoaneurysm neck to prevent rupture and placed him on TPN to correct his cachexia. The abscesses and hematomata were drained percutaneously, and an effort was made to control the fistula with a heroic effort on the part of the ostomy team. He turned around and was able go to an LTAC on TPN and antibiotics. There he gained twenty pounds and returned flush and active. Stage two was three months later and done to replace the still infected grafts with cryopreserved homograft. I did this via a right retroperitoneal approach as the left side and abdomen were a mess from the inflammation. After I removed the grafts and sewed in the homograft, general surgery reorganized his bowel and discovered that he only had about 30cm of useable small bowel and would be on TPN for life. But he was alive and learning to walk again, and eventually came back 6 months later for follow-up and gave me a hug.

That case took all of my skill to solve, and I could not have done it without the whole hospital working in sync with me. When it comes my time, I wonder who would be able to do that for me?Who would manage my ruptured AAA properly and not have bowel and pancreatic injuries?

How to do a CABG according to Dr. Swistel
When I was an intern, I wanted to be a cardiac surgeon more than anything else, and got myself slotted for 6 months of cardiac during my second year. It was an unwanted rotation because of the 5am to 11pm hours, all nighters in the unit on call, and because the CT surgeons were notorious for not letting you do anything, except for Dan Swistel. Years before he had been one of us, a resident at St. Luke’s/Roosevelt and was Dr. George Green’s protege. He had a deal with us where he had you learn and master all the following steps in this order:
1. take vein
2. put in pacing wires and chest tubes
3. close chest
4. open chest
5. open the pericardium and set up the way he wanted
6. put the venous cannulas in
7. put the arterial cannulas and secondary lines in and go on bypass
8. decannulate and repair
9. dissect the aorta, set up and place the cross clamp
10. do the proximal anastomosis on the vein grafts
11. do the distal anastomosis on the vein grafts under the microscope which was the way he and Dr. Green did it.
12. dry up…really dry up and learn to come off pump
13. take mammary
14. book a ward service CABG and do it skin to skin

Through the history of St. Luke’s up to that point, most residents never got past taking vein. That was the great barrier, and most people really didn’t stick around after taking vein and closing the leg. They did not see the point of standing around and second or third assist. Those residents who were going to Cardiac did make it to taking the mammary, but only a handful by chief year. No one made it to 14. Dr. Swistel was always true to his word, even though some residents suspected this was all some bet that he had between himself and his brother who was not a cardiac surgeon -something about I can train a monkey to do this. To me, that last step, doing a CABG skin to skin, seemed like the final level of a very difficult computer game, like casting the One Ring into the volcano, like blowing up Agent Smith.

Every step on the ladder was something I immediately applied to my general surgery experience. On call and at home, I practiced. I practiced holding the instruments correctly and performing anastomoses on discarded grafts. I learned that every hard operation is made up of small technically feasible components, so I worked to make those moves natural and smooth. I progressed rapidly up the ladder and was by the end of my last cardiac rotation firmly at 13 on more than one occasion. Every other part of my skill set expanded during this time -central lines went smoothly, appendices and gall bladders were fished out efficiently, and fear shifted its focus to different things from what made me anxious as an intern. I learned the skill of keeping people alive through the night and making the call to take people back.

With some social engineering (ordering the cardiology fellows takeout Chinese) and vacation days traded, I got to that last step during my third year. If not a monkey, then at least Park. The act of learning and mastering each component skill lets you start and finish an operation. I don’t think Dr. Swistel was ever out to lunch while I was operating, but all those moments of letting me take the knife was crucial to my education and I am grateful to him and all my teachers, including my current partners and colleagues, as I approach PGY-25.   As surgical educators, we must recognize that surgery at the sharp end of the knife is a precision craft that has to be taught much as tennis is taught starting with grip, stance, swing. That golf is learned on a driving range with a bucket of balls.

The Mid-Century Vascular Surgeon
Like Mid-Century Modern Design furniture, surgeons in my cohort are sought after by hospitals and practices for being able to let a hospital do more. What do I mean? A urologist resecting a kidney with a renal vein tumor thrombus extending into the inferior vena cava needs to have someone expose, extract, and repair the vena cava. A gynecologist debulking retroperitoneal metastases needs to be able to call for help when part of the aorta needs to go with the tumor. Cardiac surgeons need to be able to place ECMO cannulas in imaginative locations and not lose extremities in the process. A thoracic surgeon resecting a Pancoast tumor needs a vascular surgeon to repair the subclavian artery and vein. An orthopedic surgeon resecting a spindle cell tumor from the thigh needs help reconstructing the femoral artery and vein. And so on. We are safety net, the fire brigade, the SEAL team, and unfortunately many hospitals understand only when their last fully trained, full service vascular surgeon retires.

 

Vascular surgeons are a keystone species in a hospital’s ecosystem. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, it was noticed that decades later the forests returned to their ancient glory, that wetlands flourished breeding fish and insects and small mammal species, and the secondary predators that feed on them, and many missing bird species returned. Vascular surgeons capable of operating on the whole body as well as intervening on the whole body are increasingly a missing element in a hospital. And many of us chose to go missing -into our private endovascular suites and vein centers because it often does not pay to go do a 5-hour bypass when you can do three femoral angioplasties for claudication in the same time. Reading 10 carotid ultrasounds is easier on the back and more renumerative than a carotid endarterectomy. And I am not judging -it is a rational choice that is framed by the way healthcare is reimbursed.

The solution starts in the US with a shift in reimbursement to recognize the time and effort required to perform open vascular surgery well and to reward the programs and surgeons who are consistently good. Training in open vascular surgery will be sought after much as everyone wanted to be a cardiac surgeon back in the 1970’s. Government and society mandates set the menu, but the economics determine what is served.

And finally, every year thousands of surgeon-years of experience is retiring with the very skills that are now sought after. Rather than lose this human capital to golf courses and beaches, we should be grabbing them at the door.  Like those mid-century chairs and tables, we have always been there somewhere, and its time to make some more.

Complicated Aortic Dissection Talk

A basic recipe for treating complicated aortic dissection

#aorticsurgery #tevar

Life imitates social media: a ruptured type V thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysm or IT saves a life

ARTERIAL (2) (2)
Type V TAAA Rupturing into Right Pleural Cavity

It was only last month when I came across a post of an aortic aneurysm in a difficult spot (link) and I couldn’t help chiming in some comments. Reading it now, I sound insufferable, because I wrote,

“Depends on etiology and patient risk stratification. Also assuming aneurysm goes to level of SMA and right renal artery origins and involves side opposite celiac. Options depending on resources of your institute: 1.Open repair with cannulation for left heart bypass and/or circulatory arrest 2.Open debranching of common hepatic, SMA, R. Renal from infrarenal inflow and then TEVAR 3.FEVAR from custom graft from manufacturer on protocol 4.Parallel grafting to CA, SMA, R. RA with TEVAR 5.Surgeon modified FEVAR 6.Open Repair We would have a multidisciplinary huddle around this patient -Vascular, Cardiac Surgery, Cardiology, Anesthesia, and ID (if needed) to help choose. Be ready to refer to a center with more resources -including prepping patient for transfer and imaging -including uploading images to the cloud for transfer with patient’s permission. More info please”

More Info Please, Indeed

The post I commented on was of a saccular aneurysm in the transdiagphragmatic segment of aorta. Ironically, only a few weeks later, I got called from hospital transfer center about a patient with a leaking aortic aneurysm, a type V thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysm as it turned out, from an outside hospital, needing urgent attention, and we accepted in transfer based on the conversation I had with the tranferring physician. And that was the problem -usually in taking these inter-hospital transfers, you have to pray that the precious CT scans come along with the patient burned correctly onto a CD-ROM. You can buy and watch a movie in 4K resolution over the internet -about 4 gigabytes, but a patient’s CT scan which is about 200 megabytes -because of various self imposed limits, overly restrictive interpretations of laws, and lack of computer skills, these life saving images get transferred on CD in 2019. That last time I purchased a CD for anything was over 15 years ago.

An Interested Party

The technical solution –to use the internet to transfer critical life saving information between hospitals – came about when our IT folks took an interest in my quarterly complaint email about using the newfangled internet for sharing files. After mulling various solutions ranging from setting up a server to using commercial cloud solutoins, we came upon the compromise of using our internal cloud with an invitation sent to the outside hospital. I would send this invitation to upload the DICOM folder of the CD-ROM to an outisde email address. It was simple and as yet untried until this night. “Would the patient agree to have his CT scan information transmitted to us electronically?” I asked the other physician. He assured me that the patient was in agreement.

It Takes Two to Tango

Of course, being able to transfer these pictures requires a willing partner on the other side, and the referring physician made it clear he did not have the technical expertise to do so. It took a bit of social engineering to think about who would have that ability. Basically, aside from myself, who spend all their time in dark rooms in the hospital in front of giant computer monitors? The radiologists! I got through to the radiologist who had interpreted the report and explained the simple thing I needed. Gratefully, he agreed, and I sent him a link to our cloud server. I explained to him, “When you receive this, clicking the link opens a browser window and then you open the CD-ROM and find the DICOM folder and drag and drop it on the browser window.” The 200-500 megabytes of data then get sent in electronic form, as it was meant to in 2019.

The Internet Saves a Life

The brutal truth is that in locking down a computer system, many hospitals make it impossible to even load an outside CD-ROM, creating many self imposed barriers to care. Thankfully, at CCAD, we were able to work together to find a secure solution. With the CTA on our servers, I was able to review the study within 15 minutes of accepting the patient, and arrange for the right team to be assembled, and confirm that we had the right material (stent grafts) for treating the patient. When the patient arrived, OR was ready to go, saving hours of time that normally would have been required if the CT scan had to be reviewed from the CD-ROM that came with the patient. Sometimes, the CD-ROM does not come, and in a critical situation, the CTA has to be repeated with some risk to the patient for complications of the contrast and radiation.

What to Do

The patient had a 8cm sphere shaped aneurysm arising in the transdiagphragmatic aorta, leaking into the right pleural cavity.

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The patient was otherwise a healthy middle aged man with risk factors of smoking and hypertension. The centerline reconstructions showed the thoracic aorta above the aneurysm to be around 20mm in diameter and same below, with the celiac axis and superior mesenteric artery in the potential seal zone of a stent graft. The only plaque seen was around the level of the renal arteries and was focal and calcified. Looking at the list I had made as a comment to the Linked-In post, I realized that I really only had one viable option.

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Open repair, usually the most expeditious option, was made challenging by the right hemothorax, making a left thoracotomy hazardous if the lung had to be deflated. Cardiopulmonary bypass would have to be arranged for, and that adds a metabolic hit that greatly raises the stakes. Of the endovascular solutions, the only viable option was TEVAR to exclude the rupture and debranching of the celiac axis and superior mesenteric artery. To those who would advocate for parallel grafts, there was no room in the normal 20mm diameter aorta. And branch systems for rupture are some time in the future. Also, the patient was becoming hypotensive. So the planned operation was first TEVAR to stop the bleeding, and then open surgical debranching. A hybrid repair.

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The smallest stent graft we have is a 21mm graft, but it would not be suitable for this aorta. In practice, the normal aorta is quite elastic and will dilate much more than what is captured on a CTA. The next size we have is 28mm graft and I chose this to exclude the rupture, which was done percutaneously.

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As seen below, the graft excluded the celiac and SMA. Late in the phase of the final aortogram (second panel) there was an endoleak that persisteed despite multiple ballooning. The timing suggested the intercostals and phrenic vessels contributed to a type II endoleak, but it was concerning.

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Find the Endoleak

The bypasses were sent from the infrarenal aorta to the common hepatic artery and the SMA close to its origin, and the origins of the celiac axis and SMA were clipped. The bypasses were then done with a 10x8mm bifurcate Dacron graft originally for axillofemoral bypassing. It had spiral rings which I removed at the anastomosis and this resulted in a kink at the closer bypass. Usually, I loop this for iliomesenteric bypass but there was not enough distance from the infrarenal aorta. I have to add a little trick I modified from my pediatric surgery experience as a resident -a Heinecke-Mikulwicz graftoplasty:

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This worked to relieve the kink as evidenced on the aortogram above. After closing the laparotomy, I placed a chest tube in the right chest. The patient had a course prolonged by a classic systemic inflammatory response syndrome, with fevers, chills, and leukocytosis. He bled for a while but stopped with correction of his coagulopathy. All blood cultures were negative, but a CT scan was performed out of concern for the endoleak, and the possibility of continued bleeding.

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No endoleak was detected as the sac was fully thrombosed. There was a consolidation of the blood in the right chest, but it resolved with fibrinolytic therapy.

Discussion

This case illustrates several points I have been making on this blog.

  1. Hybrid repairs are not some kind of compromise but the full realization of a complete skill set. When students ask me how to judge a training program, one of the best metrics is how frequently are hybrid operations performed. It means either the endovascularist and open surgical operator are in complete synchrony or there are individual surgeons competent in both open and endovascular surgery. Hybrid operations, rather than being a compromise, are an optimization.
  2. Time -Laying the stent graft across the celiac and SMA origins starts a warm ischemia clock. The liver and intestines, in my reckoning, should be able to tolerate the 2 hours of work to get the bypasses working. Cardiopulmonary bypass may give you less ichemia but at the metabolic cost of the pump time. These negative factors add up, but were surmounted by the fact that early control of hemorrhage was achieved. Stopping the bleeding and restoring flow are the core functions of vascular surgery.
  3. Planning and preparation. The ability to see the CT images and prepare the teams and materiel before the patient transferred was lifesaving. This is where our IT gets credit for responding to a critical need and formulating a solution that meets internal policies, external regulations, and saves a life. It illustrates so many opportunities particularly with electronic medical records and their processes which focus more on documentation for billing. A discharge summary should be multimedia like this blog post and it should be normal and easy to generate. And finally, as clinicians, we should mind technology with as much attention as we give to the latest medical devices and techniques.

Innovating Our Way Out of Not Having Enough Vascular Surgeons

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View out of my balcony, sometimes you need many pieces to assemble a beautiful whole

Innovating Our Way Out of Not Having Enough Vascular Surgeons

This year’s SVS meeting featured a sobering assessment about the vascular manpower deficit affecting North America at the E. Stanley Crawford Critical Issues Forum, moderated by Dr. Michel Makaroun, MD, president-elect of the SVS. 35-45% of practicing vascular surgeons plan on retiring in the next decade by conservative estimates. We are not attracting enough candidates for the training programs. The solutions, including decreasing the length of training, public relations campaigns, and incentivizing retention have had mixed results, but we have yet to see a sustainable rise in vascular surgeon numbers.

Burnout driven by lack of work-life balance, the advent of electronic medical records optimized for billing, the passing of the private practice era, and the constant need to adapt to new techniques, create a persistent downdraft on staffing. So as some hospital face the reality of having to contract services, little attention is given to delivering best care with the staffing that we have. Changing how we practice is the only viable solution.

There are an estimated 3000 active vascular surgeons in the US. Imagine if all the cheese needs of this country could only be met by 3000 artisanal cheesemakers who make cheeses one at a time and want to live in places with international airports, BMW dealerships, and major league sports teams, and must have 3-4 partners to share cheese call. If you are a rural hospital in dire need of vascular surgery services and your one vascular surgeon is retiring, you are probably SOL.

When I was training, vascular surgery was oft touted as a primary care specialty. And that is how many of us still practice, managing risk factors, monitoring mild disease, as well as planning and performing interventions and operations. As much as I enjoy that kind of interaction, the half hour to an hour visit for a head to toe cardiovascular survey and discussion, educating patients and families about pipes and pumps, is incredibly inefficient. A healthcare system, a hospital, facing a staffing shortfall, has to do everything possible keep that vascular surgeon in the OR during work hours.

What is the core function of a vascular surgeon? Making good decisions and executing plans well. Decisions require data. What is this data? We laud the history and physical examination, but this is a throwback to another era. If you look at the diagnosis of myocardial infarction, it is not standard practice for a cardiologist to come and get a history, examine the patient, and declare that the patient is having a heart attack based solely on history and physical examination. It is a triage nurse in the ED who draws labs and orders an EKG which is read by a machine. These data points will tell you if heart muscle is being damaged. A process is started which triggers a team to come and take care of this patient. The hospitals focused on this actually drill their cath lab teams like pit crews. A stopwatch starts with the goal of revascularization under an hour.

Not so with peripheral vascular disease. The ischemic foot might have only a few hours depending on its presentation before it is irretrievably lost, but no matter -they sit in the ED until a vascular surgeon comes to speak to the patient and family, examine them, and then order tests, admission, consults, and operating room -typically all by themselves. Getting these patients into the operating room is in many places hampered by the lack of dedicated OR staffing, radiology techs, anesthesiologists, space, equipment, and critical care capacity. During work hours, there are scheduled cases that have to be delayed or canceled for another time, which takes time to do. After hours, the patient may have too many comorbidities to handle safely with the available staff. The vascular surgeon may have to bargain and cajole, to align several factions whose attention is demanded by many equally important concerns. If you decide to hold a lavish dinner party of twenty important guests -reserving space, calling caterers, inviting guests, arranging transportation – on short notice, you might pull it off once, but if you do this regularly, you are a masochist of the first order.

In the heart attack model, the history and physical examination is relegated to a series of yes/no or how long questions, and positive responses trigger a series of coordinated actions of a system -a reflex. In the leg attack model, there is no such system. I have to blame the vascular surgeons for preserving the current model.  Vascular surgeons are organized as a guild. Guilds are protective of their monopolies on skills and markets and fiercely resist change. Most vascular surgeons are terrified by loss of control, and cling to the notion of being misunderstood and unappreciated saviors. We can do better.

The area that needs streamlining is at the point of referral. The majority of time of a vascular surgeon is spent working up normal blood vessels, varicose and spider veins, leg edema and pain, and mild and moderate arterial atherosclerosis. This work initially does not require a vascular surgeon but rather a focused set of policies and initial diagnostic studies that can be administered or ordered by any caregiver. Reducing the need for vascular surgeons at this point in vascular care will go a long way in extending the vascular work force at hand.

 

Point of Care Blood Flow Evaluation

Finding and declaring blood vessels to be normal is challenging and too often time consuming. Streamlining this will go a long way in freeing vascular surgeons to take care of disease.

The average caregiver is an inconsistent pulse taker. The palpable pulses are not always easy to find. Asking over the phone or as policy for someone to examine pedal pulses -the posterior tibial artery and dorsalis pedis artery pulses, is challenging. A positive is just as likely to be true or false as a negative. No cardiologist would ask a similarly detailed and technical question about an MI. In fact, they can’t ask, “Is there a pulse in the LAD?” Cardiologists make do with tests easy to obtain and interpret with certainty -the plasma troponin level and the EKG. The EKG is read by an algorithm so established and so tested, that it should stand as an example of early machine intelligence taking over a human job -but I digress.

What is our EKG? It is not the ABI -the ankle brachial index, because it is terrible at identifying disease, and is difficult to obtain reliably without practice. The closest thing to an EKG we have in terms of simplicity and accuracy is the pulse volume recording, the PVR (figure below). A FloLab machine, the machine used to obtain PVRs, will basically run itself once the cuffs are correctly applied on the leg, and the tracings are very easy to interpret. Unlike an EKG, there are no electrodes whose locations you must memorize. If the closest vascular surgeon is an hour away by ambulance, the transfer of a patient with flat waveforms and ischemic foot does not require a consultation on site. The patient would go to the vascular surgeon with no time wasted and no kidneys injured by CTA’s that too often fail to travel with the patient. Unlike an EKG which can be performed by many caregivers, a PVR requires both the equipment and a vascular technologist. A vascular technologist is not available 24-7 in most hospitals, and FloLab machines purchased for vascular labs are not meant to be dragged around the hospital.

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So let’s think out of the box about another box in every triage nurse’s cell, every ER and ICU bed, and on every hospital nursing floor. These are pulse oximeters with a digital tracing, and bonus points, some come with strip printers! Placing a pulse oximeter probe on the second toe and comparing to an erstwhile normal wave signal such as on an index finger can provide qualitative information about normality and disease. Normal waveforms and abnormal ones can be easily discerned. A flat line is another obvious finding when in comparison, a finger or an ear on the same patient has normal signals.

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How much better would a vascular surgeon feel about a transfer call that has this information, “digital waveforms are flat in this patient with rest pain and a bruised toe.” How much better would a vascular surgeon feel about a call about a patient with “digital wave forms are normal in this patient with toe pain and a bruised toe. We got an x-ray and there was a fracture.” The communication can be quite detailed and refined. For example: “The patient had no pulses, we think. Digital wave forms were dampened but pulsatile in a patient with a bruised toe, we’ll send to vascular clinic in the morning.”

A study comparing pulse oximetry signals and ABI in type 2 Diabetes Mellitus found the following results (link).[i]

Method Sensitivity Specificity PPV NPV
Pulse oximetry 74.1% 95.7% 83.3% 92.7%
ABI 70.3% 87.1% 61.3% 91.0%

These data suggests pulse oximetry signal is equal to and somewhat better than ABI. Why is this important? Cost. This information is better than asking unsure people, “Is there a pulse?” A vascular technologist need not be on call 24/7. Extra FloLabs for ED, ICU, and floors need not be purchased. The pulse oximeter with waveform tracing is nearly ubiquitous wherever patient’s oxygenation needs to be assessed in most hospitals. While not perfect, it has great potential for serving as vascular surgery’s EKG machine for critical limb ischemia. Policies and algorithms can be built out in collaboration with Emergency Departments and nursing departments that can effectively determine if blood flow is normal or abnormal at point of care. Effective emergency responses to critical limb ischemia can be authored triggered by abnormal findings. Acute limb ischemia protocols based on time sensitive responses can be initiated. All of these can flow from referring entities being able to determine objectively normal or abnormal blood flow.

Clinic

The vascular clinic is a sorting process where patients are determined to be normal or have mild, moderate, or severe disease. The vast majority of the time spent in clinic can be spent in triage by trained nurses and testing by technologists. Clear pathways and guidelines can dictate the ordering of vascular laboratory tests obviating the need for vascular consultation at this stage. Patients with normal blood vessels and vascular function are sent back to their physicians with the normal report. Patients with mild disease and moderate disease are sent to a physician with specialization in cardiovascular medicine for management of risk factors and periodic surveillance. At any point in the process, a vascular surgeon can be called to provide guidance and direct patients to different tests and consultations. The patients needing operations, based on correct indications and imaging are sent to a focused clinic where the surgeon and interventional team can review films, determine the urgency of indications balanced against risk, and plan and schedule procedures. Currently, vascular surgeons do all of this by themselves, as well as make hospital rounds, perform procedures, and interpret vascular laboratory studies, seeing one patient at a time.

In introductory computer sciences courses, search algorithms are taught to be brute force if you look at one item at a time for the thing you want, and to be efficient if you have presorted those items because every time you look, you can exclude part of the data set, ever shrinking the pool in which you search, making the search shorter and faster

The shortfalls in vascular surgeon numbers have as much to do with this dependence on the star chef cooking up one meal at a time, rather than a team working off recipes, with the chef directing the flow and occasionally jumping by the fire to make the most difficult of dishes. The first restaurant can seat three parties. The latter, easily ten times the number. Everyone gets fed.

Only asking how many vascular surgeons you need misses the big picture because there are many equally important questions. How many vascular technologists do you need? An accredited laboratory provides the critical diagnostics upon which decisions are made, and the surgeon should oversee but not be directly involved in the initial screening. Nurses trained to triage and order vascular laboratory tests and even perform the simpler ones is the second need. Third, is the cardiovascular medicine physician who manages those patients discovered to have mild to moderate disease, and depending on symptoms, refers severely symptomatic moderate disease and severe disease to a scheduling clinic. The scheduling clinic is composed of both interventionalists and vascular surgeons who plan interventions and operations.

Surgeons must be in the operating room to be effective. A well thought out and organized system, with interlocking teams, and well disseminated basic knowledge and awareness of vascular diseases reduces the need for a vascular surgeon to be present all the time in many places and ultimately increases the effectiveness of the vascular surgeons that are available by keeping them in the operating room. The system needs to be set up by the surgeon to allow clinic to be a setting mostly for consenting the patient for an operation or a discussion of treatment options.

Finally, vascular surgeons must be aligned with all the resources of the hospital including the considerable numbers of interventional cardiologists and radiologists, neurologists, and nephrologists. There is no reason someone should wait a month to get on the OR list for an iliac angioplasty and stent if an equally skilled and privileged cardiologist or radiologist has an opening the next day. The surgeon’s special talent should be open surgery and hybrid surgery -that which mixes open surgery and intervention in optimal measures which is not possible from a purely percutaneous approach. The key is frequent and easy communication between specialities and trust built by being in one shared cardiovascular institute.

Execution

There is a critical need of good operators. The acuity of disease and their solutions demand the continued presence and availability of open surgery. The fact is, many solutions are optimal in a hybrid fashion and for peripheral vascular disease, these options can only be offered via a vascular surgeon trained in both open surgery and peripheral interventions, or in a combined effort of open surgeon and interventionalist. And many disease categories can only be managed by open surgery.

The reality is that silos, economics, and practice patterns prevent this kind of combined effort. Market forces have pushed the training of vascular surgeons forcefully into the interventional realm at the cost of open surgical training. Some of the geographic maldisdribution of vascular surgeons has to do with younger vascular surgeons flocking to established practices where there are senior surgeons more comfortable in opening a belly or chest (or both). The trap they and hospital systems fall into is then allowing these new recruits to become the interventional specialist of that group, relegating the aging open surgeon to a narrow role, and then finding that the hospital has a problem when that surgeon announces retirement at 60. Every year, millennia of surgical experience retires to beaches and golf courses. The hospital systems should recognize this brain drain as a crisis and create work arounds that keep these skills going. The other opportunity lost is close coordination with interventional cardiologists, radiologists, and nephrologists who in many cases compete with vascular surgeons for the same patients but treat the patients based on their training and skill sets to the exclusion of potentially better operations offered by surgeons. This disjointed care creates both suboptimal outcomes for patients and high costs for hospital systems.

Commerce should never dictate the fate of a patient. A particular point is where competencies and privileging overlap, and guidelines recommend intervention over surgery as in the case of a TASC A or B iliac artery lesion. A patient should not be kept waiting weeks for a spot on a busy surgeon’s OR schedule when an open interventional cardiologist or radiologist slot is available for a iliac stent the next day. It should be a matter of practice that these cases are discussed and distributed, optimally in a shared indication clinic or rounds. Patients bumped off of a surgeon’s elective schedules for emergencies who could be cared for by an interventional partner without an added delay should be given that option. This kind of change requires a commitment to continual reorganization and optimization into a vascular institute.

 

Conclusion

The perfect vascular surgeon is a unicorn -well skilled, and experienced in open vascular surgery, but also versatile, innovative, and skillful in wielding a wire. I can name just a handful of unicorns. An apt analogy from the book Moneyball is the signing of superstars in baseball on the free agent market. The upshot of that book is that you can arbitrage for the valued metrics through signing several utility players with an aptitude for one thing or another which in sum equals or exceeds that superstar and get the final result -wins, in the same proportions as overspending on a superstar. Rather than searching for that unicorn, it is more important to set up the right system. Screening, testing, and management of mild vascular disease by a nurses and cardiovascular medicine physicians, while directing operations and interventions to vascular surgeons, cardiologists, and interventional radiologists should be the next step in the evolution of vascular care systems. There will never be enough vascular surgeons in the current system. The critical and rare competency is open vascular surgical skill. A surgeon who performs only interventions is not an “advanced minimally invasive practitioner” but rather someone equally privileged as an interventional cardiologist or radiologist, and therefore easily replaceable by an interventional cardiologist or radiologist specializing in peripheral vascular disease. A surgeon skilled in open vascular surgery is becoming rarer every year, but they are still out there, looking at brochures of real estate in sunny places. A team consisting of a cardiovascular medicine physician, many vascular  technologists, nurses specializing in vascular diseases, several interventionalists, and a vascular surgeon skilled in open vascular surgery working as a single unit, is far more easy to assemble than finding and recruiting a herd of unicorns.

 

[i] Kumar MS et al. J Assoc Physicians India. 2016;64(8): 38-43.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27762107

A lot of people can put in a stent graft, unfortunately only a few can take them out.

 

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Drs. Roy Miler and Xiao Yi Teng performing anastomosis on open coversion of an aortic stent graft, now graduated and in practice. A significant part of their open aortic experience is in addressing failing stent grafts.

I recently had to remove a stent graft for infection and got to thinking about how the number of people who could comfortably and confidently manage that has thinned out in the world through the unintended consequence of the medical device market place. In every surgical specialty over the past twenty years, many open procedures were replaced with a minimally invasive option which generally involved adoption of new technology and large costs to the hospital. These newer procedures were touted as easier on the patient while being easier to perform for the average physician than the open procedure that they were replacing. That was the other selling point -that one could do several of these operations in the time it took one open procedure. In most cases, they were at best almost as good as the open procedure but at higher cost.

In the marketplace, minimally invasive always wins. In many specialties it became untenable to practice without marketing these “advanced minimally invasive” skills. Hence, the wide adoption of robotics in urology outside major academic centers -during those years of rapid adoption the surgeons would get flown to a course, work on an animal model, then for their first case a proctor would be flown out and voila -a minimally invasive specialist is born. The problem comes when learning these skills displaces the learning of traditional open surgical skills. In general surgery, it is not uncommon to hear of residents graduating without having ever having done an open cholecystectomy.  It is also the case that many vascular trainees graduate with but a few if any open aortic cases. What happens when minimally invasive options run out? Who will do my carotid endarterectomy or open AAA repair?

The first case is an elderly man with an enlarging AAA sac despite having had EVAR about seven years prior. No endoleak was demonstrated but the proximal seal was short on CT. Also, it was a first generation graft which is prone to “peek a boo” endoleaks from graft junctions and stent anchoring sutures. On that last point, I use the analogy of a patio umbrella -after seven seasons, they can leak where cloth is sewn to the metal struts. It is very hard to demonstrate leak of this kind on CTA or duplex ultrasound because they are small. The patient had his EVAR because he was considered high risk for open repair at the time of his operation -moderate COPD, mild cardiac dysfunction. His sac had enlarged to over 6cm in a short time, and therefore open conversion was undertaken. No clinical signs of infection were present. A retroperitoneal approach was undertaken. After clamps were positioned, the sac was opened.

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The picture does not show it, but a leak from the posterior proximal seal zone was seen with clamp off. The clamp was reapplied and the graft transected flush to the aortic neck. A bifurcated graft was sewn to this neck incorporating the main body stent graft and aortic neck in a generous running suture. The left iliac limb came out well and the new graft limb sewn to the iliac orifice, the right iliac limb was harder to clamp and therefore I clamped the stent graft and sewed the open graft to the stent graft.

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The patient recovered well and went home within the week. He was relieved at no longer needing annual CT scans.

Who needs annual CT scans? Patients with metastatic cancer in remission.

The second patient was an older man referred for enlarging AAA sac without visible endoleak. The aneurysm had grown over 7cm and was causing discomfort with bending forward. He too had been deemed high risk for open repair prior to his EVAR. If he had had an early generation Excluder graft, the possibility of ultrafiltration would be more likely and relining the graft would be reasonable (link). This was again a cloth and metal stent graft which can develop intermittent bleeding from graft to stent sutures, and I don’t think relining will help.

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The patient was taken for open repair (above), and on opening the AAA sac, bleeding could be seen coming from the flow divider. It stopped with pressure, but I replaced the graft in a limited fashion from the neck to the iliac limbs as in the first case. This patient did very well and was discharged home under a week.

The third patient was another fellow referred from outside who had an EVAR for a very short and angulated neck, and a secondary procedure with an aortic extension in an attempt to seal the leak had been done. This failed to seal the type Ia leak. This patient too was deemed too high risk for open surgery of what was basically a juxtarenal AAA with very tortuous anatomy.

The patient was taken for open repair, and the stent grafts slid out easily (below).

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A tube graft was sewn to the short aortic neck and distally anastomosed to the main body of the stent graft -with pledgets because of the thin PTFE graft material in this particular graft. This patient did well and went home within a week.

All three cases are patients who were deemed originally too high risk for open repair, who underwent EVAR, then underwent explantation of their failing stent graft. Only one involved a patient whose graft was placed off the IFU (short angled neck), but the rationale was that he was too high risk.

What is high risk? In non-ruptured, non-infected explantation of failing stent graft, the mortality is 3% (ref 2) from an earlier series from Cleveland Clinic.  With stent graft infection, the 30-day mortality of surgical management from a multi-institutional series was 11% (ref 3) when there was no rupture. From a Mayo Clinic series, stent graft resection for infection came with a 4% 30-day mortality (ref 4). These were nominally all high risk patients at the time of the original EVAR.

Real world risk is a range at the intersection of patient risk and the expertise of the operating room, critical care, and hospital floor teams. The constant factor is the surgeon.

Endografts for AAA disease (EVAR, endovascular aortic aneurysm repair), makes simple work of a traditionally complex operation, the open aortic aneurysm repair. The issue has been the cost and risks of long term followup as well as endograft failure and aneurysm rupture. The Instructions For Use on these devices recommend a preop, a followup 1 month, 6 month, and 12 month CTA (with contrast) and annual followup with CTA for life. These devices were meant to treat high risk patients but high risk patients with limited life spans do not benefit from EVAR (ref 1, EVAR-2 Trial). These have lead the NHS in the UK to propose that EVAR has no role in the elective repair of abdominal aortic aneurysms in their draft proposal for the NICE guidelines for management of AAA (link). While this is a critical discussion, it is a discussion that is coming at least ten years too late. A generation of surgeons have been brought up with endovascular repair, and to suddenly announce that they must become DeBakey’s, Wiley’s, Imperato’s, and Rutherford’s is wishful thinking at best or wilful rationing of services at worst.

In 2006, Guidant pacemakers were recalled because of a 1000 cases of possible capacitor failure out of 28,000 implants for a failure rate of 3.7% -there were 2 deaths for a fatality rate of 0.00007%. EVAR-1 Trial’s 8 year result (ref 5) reported 16 aneurysm related deaths out of 339 patients (1.3%) in the EVAR group compared to 3 aneurysm related deaths out of 333 patients (0.2%) in the OPEN group.

Academic medical centers, behemoths though they are, serve a critical function in that they are critical repositories of human capital. The elders of vascular surgery, that first and second generation of surgeons who trained and received  board certification, are still there and serving a vital role in preserving open aortic surgery. My generation -the ones who trained in both open and endovascular, are still here, but market forces have pushed many of my colleagues into becoming pure endovascularists. The younger generation recognizes this and last year, I sat in on an open surgical technique course at the ESVS meeting in Lyons organized by Dr. Fernando Gallardo and colleagues. It was fully attended and wonderfully proctored by master surgeons. This is of critical importance and not a trivial matter. As in the 2000’s when endovascular training was offered as a postgraduate fellowship in centers of excellence, there is no doubt in my mind that today, exovascular fellowships need to be considered and planned and that current training must reinvigorate and reincorporate their open surgical components.

References

  1. Lancet 2005;365:2187–92.
  2. J Vasc Surg. 2009 Mar;49(3):589-95.
  3. J Vasc Surg. 2016 Feb;63(2):332-40.
  4. J Vasc Surg. 2013 Aug;58(2):371-9.
  5. Lancet 2005;365:2179–86.

Exovascularist’s Dilemma: Where Is Our LIMA to LAD

During our daily morning huddles, peopled by cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, one thing impresses me more than anything else. The assembled interventional cardiologists, world class and renown, they who can place a stent in any part of the body, will defer to the unassailable superiority of the LIMA to LAD bypass over any existing intervention. I am always a little sad that the analog for this, the vein bypass in the leg does not get the same love. The open surgical bypass of the leg is the great straw man at international symposia. It is fast becoming a diminishing and curious habit of a fading generation.

The acknowledged superior hemodynamics and patency of the bypass is diminished in the literature by pooling patency loss with other factors such as amputation, heart attacks, and death. Some vascular surgeons dogmatically cling to habits learned in training that favor complications, making themselves their own worst enemies both in the literature and in the marketplace. These bad habits involve long incision length, closure techniques that do not anticipate edema, and wound orientation that makes failure more likely.

Operations require far more support and resources to succeed than do interventions that soon go home. Brilliant operations alone will not heal the patient. It is pathways and postoperative care infrastructure and staff that prevent these secondary complications -the very complications that keep the leg vein bypass from being as respected, if not loved, as the LIMA to LAD.

The postoperative care of these patients devolves to management of leg edema. No medical or nursing school adequately teaches the basic science nor management of edema, which is the most common vascular condition

The incisions are too long in the classic vein bypass. When you create and then close an incision, the inflammation drives the accumulation of fluid in the extracellular space – creating edema. This postoperative edema, poorly managed, results in complications that leave the patient hobbled with time lost to healing wound complications, pain, and excess limb weight. Additionally, vein bypasses usually involve groin exposure and the delicate lymphatics that coalesce there are perturbed or destroyed during exposure. Postop, this damage and the inflammation rapidly overcomes the capacity of a lymphatic system. The traditional vein harvest also involves cutting through deep layers of fat. The fat is typically closed by broad sutures that create areas of fat necrosis -potential fodder for bacteria. The best ways the complications of long and deep incisions is to avoid them altogether. The calculus of the operative moment – “I must see the vein,” must include the vision of a patient losing months to wound therapies to heal a gaping, necrotic, infected wound. I recommend skip incisions or adopting in-situ bypass technique with endovascular management of fistulae. Or corral your cardiac PA to harvest the vein segment in the thigh after mobilizing the vein in the leg with the endoscope.

The incisions are often closed with Nylon sutures and skin clips which can become potential foci of infection. With edema, they create zones of ischemia around them, killing skin and creating entry points for skin flora as the skin expands under an unyielding clip or suture. Placed under a pannus, these sutures or clips fester in an anaerobic environment. Closure should adhere to anatomy. The body relies on connective tissue planes to keep itself together. In the groin, these are Scarpa’s layer and the dermis. They should be closed with absorbable monofilament in a buried interrupted fashion at the dermis with a final running subcuticular layer of 4-0 absorbable monofilament. Steristrips or glue at the skin finishes the job. If you use sutures, particularly at the distal anastomotic site, take care to realize that you have about 12 hours before the skin dies in the best of circumstances, and less with microangiopathy of diabetes and ESRD. Squeezing out the edema before closure with a sterile Esmarch or short counterincisions or even a large one to allow for tension free closure over an anastomosis will prevent wound complications over your graft.

The classic longitudinal groin incisions that cut across the inguinal crease divides a tension point -that crease is like a cord that supports the pannus that is slung over it and when divided and then closed with a stitch, that stitch then bears the weight of that pannus every time the patient sits up or stands. If you are observant, wound necrosis typically starts at the groin crease under a surgical clip or suture. Incisions in the groin should be obqlique and parallel to this crease, or if you can, even inside this crease. When these wounds are closed, the natural lines of tension are in line with the incision rather than orthogonal to it. The natural forces keep the wound shut.

This is only the first step. The next is keeping the wound clean and dry for at least 5 days. At the Mayo Clinic, where I trained, the nurses up on 5 Mary Brigh were trained to blow dry the groin wounds every few hours on cool setting and redressing the wound with dry gauze. You can get something close to it by ensuring the wounds painted with betadine, allowed to air dry, and dressed with dry gauze. If there is a constant leak of fluid, you have a serious problem as there is too much edema in the leg, or the wound isn’t closed, or there is a lymph leak. It needs to be actively dried out or you get a wet, macerated, infected wound like a grenade went off in the groin.

They don’t teach compression wrap techniques in medical or nursing school

The simplest thing to avoid lymph leaks is to not make them. Cutting near lymph nodes is hazardous, and once below Scarpa’s you have to orient your dissection directly over the femoral artery. Stray horizontally and you will undoubtedly cut one of the 4 to 10 invisible lymph channels.

They are invisible but detectable -after you break them, you will see a constant wetness in the wound. Think about injecting a cc or two of Lymphazurin (Isosulfan Blue, for those not allergic to Sulfa) into the intertriginous space on the same foot and you will see the lymph channel in bright blue, or stare carefully at the likely spots for a lymph leak and clip it, burn it, Ligasure or Harmonic scalpel it.

Lymph leak identified from saphenectomy incision (for CABG)

So how did we get to a rather dry discussion about edema? Wound complications are tremendously debilitating and offset any benefit from vein bypass operations. These long incisions become terrible big wounds if not prevented. It takes the concerted effort of a team and particularly nursing in actively managing edema. And at the end, the patient too must be included in this discussion. For the vein bypass of the leg to get the same respect and love as the LIMA to LAD bypass, surgical wound complications must become never events.

Water goes downhill