“Prevention saved my life,” says CEO about Emory’s coronary artery screening exam

Dick VerchWhen Richard L. Verch’s wife, Gail, read an article in the April 6, 2008, issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about EMORY HEALTHCARE’s comprehensive cardiovascular screenings, she wanted her husband to take advantage of the “quick and painless” preventive measure for $150.

Verch, 68, from Alpharetta, had a coronary artery screening exam at The Emory Clinic on April 30. The report wasn’t due to be sent to Verch for two weeks. The next morning, Arthur E. Stillman, MD, PhD, FAHA, professor of radiology and the director of cardiothoracic imaging in the Emory University School of Medicine, recommended immediate surgery.

“The images demonstrated a 5.6 cm ascending aortic aneurysm,” says Dr. Stillman. “Rupture of an ascending aortic aneurysm could be catastrophic. In his case, the coronary arteries had mild calcification and so his risk was from aortic rupture, not a near-term heart attack. It certainly is possible that this test led to life-saving surgical correction of the problem.”

Verch left his office, where he’s CEO of Strong Environmental, Inc., which provides treatment and disposal services for a broad spectrum of industrial, non-hazardous, hazardous and special waste materials, and its division Strong Pharmaceutical, Inc., in Norcross, Georgia, to see his doctor, Emory physician Andrew Huber, MD.  Dr. Huber was able to set up an appointment for surgery with Robert A. Guyton, MD, professor and Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Emory. Guyton performed a valve-sparing ascending aorta and hemiarch replacement at Emory University Hospital on May 16. Verch was in surgery for more than  9 hours.

“Mr.Verch was very fortunate to have this study because this type of aneurysm is often without symptoms until it ruptures, which is almost always fatal,” says Dr. Byron Williams, Martha West Looney Professor of Medicine and Chief of Internal Medicine at Emory Crawford Long Hospital, and Mr. Verch’s cardiologist at Emory. “He has made a remarkable recovery from the surgery and is ready to resume a normal life.”

“I didn’t want to have the scan done,” recalls Verch. “I ran four to five miles a day, five to six days a week for 34 years. I ran the Peachtree every year. Every time Dr. Huber did a physical, he said I was in great shape. All my stats—blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides—were normal or optimal. Just think what would have happened if I hadn’t had the coronary artery calcium scoring and cardiac risk screen. I never would have found out the severity of my condition.”

“This comprehensive set of tests also looks at blood lipids and blood pressure as cardiovascular risk factors and fasting glucose for diabetes,” explains Dr. Stillman. “We image part of the lungs and so occasionally will diagnose lung cancer or an aortic aneurysm as in this patient.”

“I was at the right place at the right time with the right physicians and the right diagnosis,” says Verch. “It was an accidental test. The usual lifeline/stress tests I’d taken would never have discovered something like this. This one was the big one. I would not have survived it.”

Verch had access to Emory’s new, state-of-the-art Siemens SOMATOM Definition CT scanner, which can provide one of the most detailed images of the heart available today. This technology allows the detection of coronary artery calcium, an accurate marker of coronary disease.

“Everybody at Emory was impressive,” says Verch. “I’m a strong advocate of this test and have recommended it to others, including physicians. My cardiologist said most people with this condition don’t live beyond a certain point (45  to 58 years). So I extended my welcome. It’s one of those things nobody knows how long it was sitting there. You can’t grab onto this with a physical. Only this test could do it. My heart was functioning well but my aorta was just waiting to burst. If it had ruptured, I wouldn’t be alive today. They took a family history and discovered that my mother’s father, who was a doctor, had this condition. I was lucky. Prevention was absolutely the only thing that saved my life.

“I had a 10-inch incision from the larynx to the bellybutton and I was on a heart-lung machine,” says Verch. “Now I’m walking a minimum of three miles a day, working a full day at the office and I went to Alaska with my entire family to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary in June. To everybody at Emory, THANKS for your help. I’m forever grateful.” 

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