Heart Hospital Team Performs First of its Kind Procedure

By Elaine Tassy/Journal Staff Writer

Joe Sanchez, a jocular 84-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant, was vacuuming inside his Uptown home on the hot, sunny afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 13, while Sally, his wife of more than 60 years, was dusting in the kitchen and living room.

Suddenly, Joe experienced a back pain so shocking, unprecedented and severe he had to stop and sit down. When he began to moan, their son Bruce told his mother to call 911.

The team that saved Joe Sanchez, from left: Fred Apodaca and Chris Chavez, both registered radiologic technologists, and Dr. Steve Henao, a vascular surgeon, in the room where they successfully performed the first surgery in the U.S. that saved the life of a patient having an abdominal aortic aneurysm. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

On Joe’s arrival, emergency personnel found his blood pressure was down to 40 over 0. His abdominal aorta, a major vessel transporting blood from the lower to upper body, had ruptured and he was about to die, like 90 percent of people in his situation.

Forty-eight hours later, Sanchez was back at home with his family, still perplexed and amazed, and not only because he was still alive.

He was also the first person in the country who, without invasive major surgery, was rescued from an emergency abdominal aortic rupture by a device approved in January 2013 by the FDA. The life-saving procedure was performed in the cardiovascular lab of Heart Hospital of New Mexico at Lovelace Medical Center by Dr. Steve Henao, an endovascular surgeon with the New Mexico Heart Institute.

“The fact that I was the first one!” Sanchez said during a recent interview at his tidy home a few weeks before returning for his six-month follow-up Feb. 5. “Jeepers! They could have made a mistake!”

Sanchez has since lost 30 pounds and takes five pills a day, but is otherwise the same vibrant man he was before. He’s enjoying retirement with his wife, as well as his son and his daughter, both in their 50s, his five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


Joe Sanchez, 84, with his wife Sally Sanchez, 82, at their Uptown home several weeks before the six-month mark after his rare and lifesaving surgical procedure. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“They must have known that I didn’t have much time! How’d they know that was my problem?” he wonders still, amazed and grateful.

That August day, by the time EMTs loaded Sanchez into the back of an ambulance, he was unresponsive. Sally climbed in front with the driver, hoping her husband would survive and that they wouldn’t have a car accident on the way. They made it to the Heart Hospital emergency room where they met Henao.

The symptoms Sanchez arrived with at the ER spelled emergency, and saving him depended on the successful non-surgical implantation of a device, called the Ovation Prime trivascular endograph stent system, which was created by non-medical engineers in California.

Only several inches long and available in different sizes, it travels through a catheter from the patient’s groin and gets threaded into place as a surgeon and a team of radiological professionals watch its progress via ultrasound and X-ray images. Once in place, the device will eject, from built-in rings around the neck, a polymer that dries to the texture of a pencil eraser and creates a permanent seal that closes off the rupture.

Henao’s team that day included certified radiological technologists Fred Apodaca and Chris Chavez. Steve Bachicha, an X-ray radiologist and registered cardiovascular invasive specialist with 16 years experience, was also in the room, since he sells the device and trains medical professionals to use it. More than a dozen other staffers were in an adjacent control room.

A serious, thoughtful 42-year-old originally from Texas with eight years of surgical experience, Henao had already performed about 60 open-heart operations, but never one like this, where no incision is made into the chest cavity while a patient is near death.

The doctor and his team had only five minutes to scrub up, rather than the 30 it usually takes.

Henao had Sanchez moved from the ER to the cardiovascular lab, which had the right equipment. He suited up in a monogrammed shield that protects him from the X-rays.

That Apodaca and Chavez were on duty was a relief to Henao, who had worked well with them many times before and trusted they would give him the back-up he needed without much talk. The first step was to use ultrasound to get a look inside and take a “before” picture, which showed that the vessel, normally 1.8 centimeters in diameter, had ballooned to 8 or 9 centimeters.


Dr. Steve Henao, 42, holds a stent like the one he used to save Joe Sanchez’s life in August. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

In a rapid-fire procedure that called for the first-time use of the device in an emergency, Henao and the techs threaded the stent through Sanchez’s groin and into position so it could close off the rupture. In about 20 minutes, it was secure, and the polymer ejected through its rings had dried to create a new portion of his previously leaking aorta. The “After” picture showed the rupture was 100 percent sealed off.

The moment they knew they had succeeded was unforgettable. “It’s a feeling you wish you had every day, because you held a life in your hand, and that life gets to continue,” said Apodaca.

Added Chavez: “A patient was minutes away from leaving us! It was very impressive.”

Once they knew Sanchez was saved, the techs and Bachicha were sharing high-fives like never before, and the surgeon was soon on the phone with his mother, who burst into tears upon hearing about what Henao describes this way: “If I was going to end my career today, that would be the crowning achievement of what I’ve ever done.”

His team agrees. “It was basically the Super Bowl for us,” said Bachicha. “Fourth down, 20 yards, two seconds on the clock, and we nailed it!”

Now, as Sanchez is carrying on with life just like before, he still can’t believe someone half his age was so quickly and nimbly able to save him.

“What is he, 16, 16½?” he asked jokingly of Henao.

For his part, the doctor says the two men are like best friends, even though they never told each other. “Some non-verbal things,” Henao said in a voice full of emotion, “you just can’t express.”

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