AAA EVAR open aneurysm surgery

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm in Remission

Look again, it is a doodle of a CT scan of a patient with an Ancure stent graft with sac shrinkage

I remember in the mid-2000’s, driving very fast to Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines on a Saturday night to fix an aneurysm that had ruptured. He was a man over 70 years of age with a type III endoleak from a component separation. The endografts had been placed by a cardiac surgeon who had taken some courses. I rescued him by open replacement of the aneurysm with a tube graft after I pulled out the endografts. Later, as the patient recovered, I asked him why he never followed up as required on his stent graft. His answer was, in typical Iowa farmer fashion, “Welp. If it was fixed, why should I?”

Indeed, why should he? Looking at his chart from the time of his EVAR, he was determined to be a “high risk” patient, necessitating the new minimally invasive procedure EVAR in 2003. Seeing that he survived the stress test of a ruptured aneurysm, it was clear he was not all that “high risk.” I did reassure him that with the open repair, he was basically cured. Despite scheduling a followup appointment, he never showed up. And that was okay.

EVAR is a treatment for AAA, but currently not a cure. All of the devices instructions for use stipulate the need for lifelong followup with CT scans with contrast and visits with qualified specialists. As I have mentioned in the past, what other condition requires surveillance CT scans with contrast and followup with a specialist? Cancer in remission. For those with good cardiac risk and functional status, placing an endograft rather than open repair creates “Aortic Aneurysm in Remission.” If they are in the majority of patients with a stable aneurysm sac, their endografts are sitting in a bag of static, aging blood. If there are type II endoleaks, and it is my belief that the majority of stable aneurysm sacs have some type II endoleaks that blinker on and off depending on the hemodynamics, particularly through needle holes, they are circulating the products of breakdown of that bag of old blood and exposing a perfect culture medium to potential inoculation. These type II and IV endoleaks can inflate the aortic sac over time. Occasionally, the residual AAA sacs rupture, erasing any of the early advantage conferred by the minimally invasive index procedure in long term followup EVAR v OPEN repair.

What is a cure? A cure is when you quell an infection with an antibiotic. A cure is when you’ve taken out an inflamed appendix. It’s when you’ve eradicated early stage cancer. It’s when you perform an open aortic graft and the patient can disappear after you remove the dressings and never followup, sure in the knowledge that the aneurysm in that spot will never bother them again. With EVAR, only a minority get to the state (figure at top) a sac shrunk intimately around the endograft. Most are not cured but enrolled in a regime of lifelong surveillance and maintenance.

EVAR does allow people to leave the hospital with less scarring and pain, but the consequences of its popularity are:   

1. Letting more practitioners, not all of them vascular surgeons, treat aortic aneurysm disease with less training and with less or no ability to manage the inevitable failures surgically. 

2. Creating the business model for “Advanced, Minimally Invasive, Super-Fantastic Aortic Centers of Excellence” which is predicated on the business of surveillance and maintenance of aortic endografts. It is a busy-ness that generates revenue, but burdens the country with more healthcare costs. It ultimately siphons business away from true centers of excellence involved in training the next generation of vascular surgeons.

3. Skewing the training curriculum of trainees to endovascular so much that I have met vascular surgeons who have done no aortic operations. That was the case when I sat in on an open aortic surgery class at the 2017 ESVS meeting in Lyons, France. All the attendees were very eager to try sewing anastomoses, but felt they needed proctoring which isn’t available.

4. Establishing the expectation that open aortic surgery is a failed, antiquarian, obsolete technique to be relegated to the history books. This last one is infuriating and not true but it is out there in the claims of the aorticians.

5. Resulting in palliation when the aortic aneurysm in remission ruptures and there are no readily available open-capable surgeons experienced in rescuing these patients. This happens. Don’t let it happen to you.

Various solutions have been broached including regionalization of aortic aneurysm care, superfellowships in exovascular surgery to complement the widespread endovascular training, and going back to open aortic surgery as the norm as had been proposed controversially in the UK. There is no turning back the clock. The moment that Dr. Parodi combined an aortic graft with Dr. Palmaz’s stent, a quantum leap occurred. The operation of aortic aneurysm surgery was changed from a challenging operation mastered by a few to a straightforward procedure performed by many.

Interesting to me is that illustration at the top of the post is of a common observation – the obliteration of the aortic aneurysm sac around a Guidant Ancure stent graft. When the sac disappears, it is as close to a cure that you can get. For some reason, I see this more frequently with Ancure than with other grafts over the past twenty years.

Odd fact -I may have been the last surgeon to implant an Ancure in the world. In 2003, I was treating a AAA with an Ancure graft when the delivery system froze in mid deployment. I called Dr. Dan Clair away from some meeting, and he called for pliers, screw drivers, and a saw, and after deconstructing the delivery system, deployed the graft and returned to his meeting with nary a word. The Guidant rep, who had been on the phone, looked up with saucer eyes, and said, “Wow. They’ve pulled Ancure off the market.”

I think it is because of the design, which is now off the market. When stents are sewn to cloth, the needle holes leak, and leak particularly where the stent graft makes a turn, stretching the suture hole. Junctions and seams leak. The Ancure, aside from the stents at top and bottom in the seal zone, has no such holes as it is unsupported and manufactured as a single piece with no junctions or seams. It is the closest you get to sewing in a graft by open surgery. If it weren’t for its overly complicated delivery system which was its downfall, I think it would be in its third generation with visceral branches that are created off the textile machines rather than joined inside the patient. There are lessons to be learned from this abandoned tech.

I believe a treat once and walk-away cure is achievable in EVAR. The idea is not to be satisfied with anything less than a cure, anything that ends with aortic aneurysm in remission. We have to understand we have chosen a path of iteration and continuous but slow improvement in the EVAR space. The front end benefits of EVAR are clear but it is in the long term we have to focus. Until then, warranties would be great.

AAA Commentary common iliac artery aneurysm complications CTA EVAR innovation ruptured AAA techniques training

Lifelong surveillance after EVAR -is it worth it?

About ten years ago, I had a patient who came to see me for moderate carotid disease. While his carotid disease was asymptomatic, he also had metastatic colon cancer. With colectomy, cryoablation of liver mets, and chemotherapy, he was in remission. Every 6 to twelve months he had some kind of CT scan with contrast. His renal function was poor and this was blamed on his chemotherapy. While it had nothing to do with this patient, I thought to myself, “Having an aortic stent graft was a lot like having metastatic cancer in remission.” After a stent graft, the patient is forever tied to the health care system. Without surveillance, there may be an endoleak, sac expansion, rupture, and even death. Patients and vascular surgeons can make choices that lengthen life, improve its quality, and avoid the complications of disease. But what if a treatment becomes a condition and a burden on healthcare resources and the patient’s finances?

Fool me once…

Type Ib Endoleak Causing re-Rupture of a previous r-AAA after no surveillance

Take this patient who had previously ruptured his AAA and undergone EVAR. Several years out from his rupture, he ruptured again from a type Ib endoleak due to aneurysmal degeneration of his right common iliac artery. Per his family, he never followed up. Perhaps he assumed he was cured of his disease? Repairing this was tricky, primarily because I hopped up and down, thinking, “I could cure this!” An open revision with a bifurcated graft would eliminate the need for EVAR surveillance, avoid abdominal compartment syndrome, and the physiologic consequences of a large retroperitoneal hematoma. But who wants a laparotomy? Not this patient, who was hypovolemic shock, and whose family chose the minimally invasive option that everyone assumes is better.

Not a clamp

I took him to the hybrid operating room, balloon occluding to stabilize his blood pressure, embolizing the normal internal iliac artery and extending the stent graft into the external iliac artery.

Completion -there is an Amplatzer plug in the right internal iliac artery

This patient stabilized and had abdominal tightness due to his large hematoma which did not need evacuation. After a stay lengthened by concern for abdominal compartment syndrome, moderate pain, fevers, and bilirubinemia (due to the hematoma), he was discharged and never showed up for followup. None of the phone numbers work. Without followup, EVAR is a menace. We will keep trying.

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few…

The great feature of EVAR is that the complications up-front at the time of surgery are wonderfully low. This patient pictured above here presented in middle age with a rupture into the retroperitoneum. He was unconscious and had hemorrhagic shock.

The decision to perform EVAR was made late in the transfer because I did not have the images from the transferring hospital (another subject for another blog post) so I set up for both open repair and EVAR. En route to the OR, I scanned, slowly, through the CT images sent via CD-ROM, and my internal discussion went something like this.

He’s a 50-something smoker in shock with a contained rupture of a 8cm infrarenal AAA with a good neck. Let’s take care of this in 30 minutes with a percutaneous endovascular aneurysm repair (p-EVAR).”

He’s a 50-something smoker in shock with a contained rupture with a good neck -let’s take care of this in 90 minutes with a tube graft, open aortic repair (OAR).”

With p-EVAR, he’s going to have just two groin punctures and much lower complication rate, shorter length of stay, similar to lower mortality. Look -his blood pressure is 75mmHg systolic!

That hypotension is permissive to minimize bleeding. With OAR, he’ll avoid abdominal hypertension and complications of a giant hematoma. Because he’s young, he’ll avoid lifelong surveillance. If anyone can clamp this AAA, it’s me...”

Pride cometh before the fall. Get this man off the table and figure out the logistics later. p-EVAR. You open him up, he’ll exsanguinate and expire before you get the clamp on.

I sighed, looked up at the gathered team, and announced, “p-EVAR.” The percutaneous EVAR is something I’ve been doing since 2004, long before it was a big deal, and we were done under an hour. His blood pressure stabilized, but general surgery was consulted for his abdominal compartment syndrome. With sedation, fluids and time, his urine out put recovered but his belly remained distended and his bladder pressures which were never seriously elevated, trended down.

It was made known to me that the patient had very limited insurance making followup surveillance challenging. Due to his coverage, he had to have his imaging done at designated hospitals, so I wrote a detailed note -basically the timings of his followup CT scan, and asked that the reports should be sent to me. I ordered a CTA prior to discharge which showed a type II endoleak adjacent to the graft and connected to both lumbar and inferior mesenteric arteries (first image above). After some thinking, I took the patient for an aortogram, accessed the IMA via the SMA and coiled into his AAA sac and the IMA.

It was only a few weeks ago one of my colleagues across town contacted me that the patient had been admitted with abdominal pain, a CT showing a type II endoleak from his lumbars, but a smaller AAA sac than his pre-repair size of 8.5cm. The patient is seeking to repatriate, and I doubt he would be able to get adequate followup in his home country without paying in cash. Happy that the patient survived his rupture, I still have persistent regrets at not getting him through an open repair, which I am sure he would have done fine with… Or maybe not.

Je Ne Regret Rien…

Recently I admitted a patient, in his 70’s, with a symptomatic 6.5cm infrarenal AAA with bilateral common iliac artery aneurysms, the right being 25mm, the left over 30mm. Because of the pandemic, he was stuck here, seeking to repatriate. Over ten years before, he had a segment of descending thoracic aorta repaired for a traumatic tear -probably one of the last before the wide adoption of thoracic stent grafts which work great by the way.

Cardiac risk evaluation revealed an ejection fraction of 35% with reversible ischemia on nuclear stress test. CTA of the coronaries revealed triple vessel coronary artery disease corroborated by catheterization. Off-pump CABG was planned which would eliminate the effects of cardiopulmonary bypass.

Preparations were made for EVAR with IBE of the left iliac aneurysm as a contingency, but there was no question that if the patient recovered well from his CABG, he would undergo open repair. This was because bell-bottoming or IBE must have regular coordinated surveillance which was not going to be easy with the patient leaving for another country in the middle of a pandemic. It is difficult to get followup to happen in normal circumstances (see above cases). I expressed my opinion to the patient and family and we agreed to see how the patient responded to off-pump CABG.

He underwent off-pump CABG with three vessels revascularized. He was extubated POD#1 and mobilized. By POD #4, he was on a regular patient floor, being co-managed by hospital medicine who takes care of all of our patients. The patient expressed readiness for the next operation. His kidney function remained normal. He was transfused 2 units of PRBC to bring his hematocrit to 30%. He was taken off Plavix, but kept on aspirin. On POD#6, he was taken back to the operating room for open aortic bypass. This would not have been possible without close coordination of cardiology, cardiac surgery, and vascular surgery. Choosing off-pump CABG was a critical element in being able to proceed with open aortic surgery.

Right branch taken to iliac bifurcation, separate bypasses sent to left internal and external iliac bypasses.

I do several things to decrease the physiologic impact of the operation. First is keeping all the viscera retracted under the skin. This simple move has the effect of decreasing the rate of intestinal paralysis and amount of fluid shifts that occur postop, akin to going retroperitoneal. This decreases the space you potentially have if you use standard clamps, but I use the Cherry Supraceliac clamp (image), DeBakey Sidewinder (transverse), or just a Satinsky clamp oriented transversely. This minimizes the occupation of volume over the anastomosis which always happens with standard aortic cross clamps. The anastomosis is easier without the clamp taking up valuable space.

Cherry Supraceliac Aortic Clamp

The iliacs are always clamped with Wylie Hypogastric clamps, again, with the principle of eliminating clamp overhang. Suturing is done with 4-0 Prolene on SH needles -this is plenty (link). The proximal anastomosis wants to bleed, and sewing to a fully cut ring of aorta ensures good posterior bites but also allows for sliding a band of graft down over the anastomosis (Dan Clair calls this a gusset) which works well at creating a hemostatic proximal anastomosis rapidly-trust me, getting this done well is the key step of the operation. Before closing, I infiltrate the rectus sheath and preperitoneum bilaterally with local anesthesia -lidocaine 1% with epinephrine 1:1 with bupivicaine 0.5%. The skin is closed with absorbable dermal sutures because staples create as many problems as they solve. The patient had cell salvage through the case and no extra units of transfused blood.

The patient was extubated that night and started on clear liquid diet. The next day his lines were removed and he was moved to the floor and started on regular diet when he expressed hunger. On POD#2, he was pacing floor, asking when he could be discharged.

Sternotomy and Laparotomy POD#2, walking the floor

As he was eating, walking, talking, breathing, evacuating bowel and urine, and pain free (well controlled), I saw no reason to keep him beyond POD #3 AAA/#9 CABG. I have kept in touch with him and his family and he is doing well and has given permission for this posting.


This final case has confirmed several of my beliefs. First, calling something high risk can drive one to make bad choices and in fact endanger patients. This last patient would qualify as high risk on any international criteria, and you would not be wrong in quoting upwards of 30% major morbidity and mortality for cardiac revascularization and AAA repair, but you would also be tying your hands from offering the best solution for this man who fortunately was able to undergo two prodigious operations. He will not require much in the way of followup. Coronary revascularization with arterial conduit and open aortic grafting frees him from the need for close followup and reassures us that his repair is durable.

Second, calling something advanced and minimally invasive gives one cachet in the marketplace but forgoes careful discussion and consideration of what is being abandoned. The first two patients survived their ruptures but now face the consequences of having stent grafts. It is a shame when podium speakers at international symposia declare surgery to represent failure because this affects training by encouraging abandonment of hard to acquire skills. It seeps into patient perceptions and expectations. I hope that a balanced approach prevails. You have to be capable of both open and endovascular approaches to be able to offer the best treatment for a particular patient.

Finally, these old operations are cost efficient and there is a lot of room to improve these procedures with new perspectives, techniques, and data. I don’t operate the same way I trained, and it is only through continued application of operations that improvements can come about. As budgets tighten and economies are stressed, cost efficacy will rein in much of the interest and demand in new stuff unless it adds value. That said, I am grateful to our stent graft representatives who have worked to get us bell bottoms and IBE’s for when they will be needed. These grafts will be used when the time is right.

AAA common iliac artery aneurysm iliac artery aneurysm ruptured AAA training

If the odds are against the patient, who is for the patient?


The first patient, a man in his late 70’s, ruptured in the emergency room at around four in the afternoon on a weekday, which was fortuitous, as the hospital was fully staffed, fully armed. The patient had arrived only a bit earlier with the complaint of severe abdominal pain, and soon after getting his CT, arrested. CPR commenced as I arrived by Dr. Timothy Ryan, our chief resident at that time. 

Ruptured CIAA with CPR 1 -_1
a rupture
The patient was wheeled upstairs with ongoing chest compressions. The anesthesia and operating room staff started a bucket brigade of blood -there was enough staff to start a symposium. Within 5 minutes of hitting the operating, I poured betadine on the chest and belly and took a blade and cut open the abdomen. Blood poured out onto our scrubs and to the floor and our shoes. I pushed my hand into the retroperitoneum, gently sweeping aside the torn tissues and blood clot to feel the hill of the aneurysm. I walked over the slope of the aneurysm and tweedled my fingers around the aorta above the aneurysm. The cross clamp rode my fingers into position around the aorta. The patient, so very dead minutes before in the ED, came back as I began to feel a pulse above the clamp. The patient lived through the operation and the night where grim data -pH of 6.8, lactates in the double digits, four figure LFT’s, kidney failure all predicted a bad outcome. And yet he survived, and a few days later, a second operation to washout and close his belly which had been left opened and packed occurred, and he recovered. We still talk about that day now three years out, and while he thanks me, I thank the whole hospital because I don’t remember speaking very much -the right things just happened around me as we worked, the whole hospital and me.

More recently, while I was finishing up two urgent cases, I got a call that the patient with the leaking aneurysm had arrived from across town and was becoming hypotensive.

ruptured AAA -_1
another rupture
Gratefully, one of my partners, Dr. Christopher Smolock, was rounding that Saturday and stepped in to finish up the last of the two cases while I ran down to the patient, a man in his late sixties, who had arrived in our acute aortic syndrome unit.

IMG_7195 (1)
Dr. Christopher Smolock
We conversed, the patient and I, and he understood what laid ahead. We rolled him up to the OR, and while we were prepping and draping, my fellow, Dr. Francisco Vargas, looked to me gravely and said with certitude, “I think he’s dead.

Dr. Francisco Vargas
Chest compressions commenced and again, knife in hand, I cut him open from sterum to pubis and got the clamp on. It took 15 minutes of CPR to get a pulse back. I was very pessimistic as during the case, ridiculously bad lab data came back like a pH of 6.9, lactate above 10, no urine.

Graft Repair of Rupture
The blood bank sent down coolers like the kind you take to tailgates, only filled with blood and plasma. The aneurysm had grown like a rotten apple on a stick and the graft we needed to repair it was surprisingly short. He too made it to the ICU, and after a long recovery which included dialysis, a tracheostomy, and a reboot of the brain -the brain takes a while to recover from the anoxia, but his went “bonnnnng” like a waking Mac after days of spinning beach balls, and he started to follow commands. The morning before he transferred to rehab, we talked about what he could have done to prevent the rupture. Not knowing about it, not much, I replied. People traditionally lived to about 20-30 years of age, I said, before dying of disease, violence, or predation. Longevity has meant wear and tear on irreplaceable parts. We agreed it was good to be alive.

Ruptured aortic aneurysms are the sine qua non of vascular surgical practice. As a junior resident back in the antedeluvian 90’s, I remember one of my chiefs, Dr. Eric Toschlog, now a trauma surgeon out East, running a patient upstairs from the ER with a rupture, and before the attending arrived by taxi, had the graft in. When it became my turn, as a fellow working on a patient who had been helicoptered in from the frozen wastes of Minnesota, I remember playing a trick with my mind -that the patient was proportionally the same size as the rabbits I was working with in the research lab, that I was really big and the patient’s aneurysm very small. This works to calm the heart, steady the hand. Nowadays, my mind is blank, and my hands working reflexively.

There has been a series of papers that create scores that allow prediction of odds for survival, and both of these patients, particularly with their prolonged CPR, have greater than 90% predicted mortality on these measures. In this month’s JVS, Broos et al, in the aptly named paper, “A ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm that requires preoperative cardiopulmonary resuscitation is not necessarily lethal” describe a 38.5% survival rate among their series of patients with rupture who had CPR (ref 1).

Practically speaking, no one I know would use these scores to decide to not operate. While many series show better survival for emergency EVAR compared to open repair, several randomized control trial failed to show better results when these methods were directly compared. A retroperitoneal approach is preferred by some in our group, but having tried both closed chest CPR with the patient in right lateral decubitus position and open cardiac massage -(both died), I prefer supine.

There is no survival if there is no attempt.


  1. J Vasc Surg 2016;63:49-54.