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Sheila Arrington of Baton Rouge founded the country's first nonprofit dedicated to informing people about abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) and offering free screenings to those at risk. Her group, Aneurysm Outreach Inc., has teamed up with LSU Health Sciences Center and LSU Healthcare Network for a screening from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 16, at 2820 Napoleon Ave., Suite 890. (Call 412-1110 for an appointment.) Here Arrington, president of Aneurysm Outreach, discusses AAA and her organization.

Q: What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm ?

A: An aneurysm is a ballooning in the wall of a weakened blood vessel. AAA occurs in the body's largest blood vessel, the aorta. It is the most common aneurysm, but people who get one don't live to tell about it if it ruptures.

Q: Why did you start Aneurysm Outreach and decide to offer free screenings?

A: It's a result of three major events in my life. The first occurred in 1977, when my 58-year-old father came home from a family reunion on a charter flight in a body bag. That was my first experience with AAA. The second was in 1995. I read a Wall Streeet Journal article that stated that abdominal aortic aneurysms could run in families. I called the researcher at Rutgers in New Jersey (quoted in the article), and he assigned me the task of gathering a family history on my dad's side. What I discovered was fascinating and frightening. Five of the eight siblings, plus my grandfather and my father's first cousin had all had them. No one made the connection. The researcher said, "Wow, we want to study you." He said "It's very bad, these genetics." He suggested that there had never been a nonprofit to consolidate efforts. [AAA] has been overlooked and understudied for 50 years. The third major event is I went through a divorce in 1997, and I got on my knees and said, "Lord, I need a purpose in this life." This is what has evolved. What we have found is that when we screen the right aged people, and especially if we can get men there, we find aneurysms.

Q: Who should get the screenings?

A: Males have four to five times the risk as women. We offer the program to people 60 and over, and also to people 55 and over if they have a family history of AAA. It's something you only have to do once every five years. If your aorta is normal, it will be nowhere near rupture (for five years). It takes from 10 to 25 years from the time it starts ballooning for it to rupture. It's very slow and usually has no symptoms. That's why early detection is so important. If it ruptures, you've got a 75 to 90 percent chance you're going to die. But you have a 95 percent chance of survival with early detection. What I pray is that the people who need to be there see one of our promotions and come.

Q: What does a screening entail?

A: A simple ultrasound of the abdomen. In today's world, doctors don't order ultrasounds unless there are symptoms, because insurance won't cover it. That's why this is a potentially life-saving opportunity. It requires that you fast for eight hours before the screening so you have more likelihood of getting a good result. It typically takes, from checking in to completion, about 45 minutes. We show a 9-minute video. We do a blood pressure screening. The ultrasound itself is less than 5 minutes, and [patients] will get results right there. They get [a results] form to give their doctor. When we have a positive result (especially a large aneurysm), we'll work with them to make sure they get proper care. With small ones, they will know they need to be in followup until surgery is required. Most of the ones we find are small, but we give them the ability to go to their doctor and say, "Hey, I've got a problem," so the doctor has a reason to do an ultrasound (later as a followup) and it will be covered by insurance.

Q: Is there a charge for the screening?

A: We offer it at no cost. We know some seniors are on low incomes. We do encourage tax-deductible donations if they can afford it, but we do the screenings regardless. We ask for donations because we are a unique charity and the first of its kind in the United States, so there aren't established places to go get funding. What I hope to do is build a name for Louisiana as a humanitarian leader. We would like to see full participation. It's a shame when we don't have a full house or screenings, which is almost 300 people.

Q: How prevalent is AAA and how deadly is it?

A: It is the third-leading cause of sudden death in American men. It's the 13th-cause of all death. That's quite a statistic. It is more prevalent in Caucasian men. We have found 229 abdominal aortic aneurysms since we started, and only 26 were in females. We started in Baton Rouge in 2001 and started to move outward in the state in 2004. We offered door prizes just for the men to increase our male participation, since they have the highest risk and weren't showing up. We started off with 75 or 80 percent women coming to the screenings, and we knew we needed the reverse. We had our first 50:50 ratio in Monroe in June 2007 and found 16 aneurysms; three were in women and 13 were in white males.

Q: What are the risk factors for AAA?

A: Age over 60, hypertension, atherosclerosis, smoking is a huge risk factor — it makes aneurysms spread much faster than in someone who doesn't smoke — family history and being a male.

Q: Where all do you offer screenings?

A: All the major cities in Louisiana: Alexandria, Shreveport, Monroe, Houma, New Orleans, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Hammond, Baton Rouge, and we'll have our first screening on the Northshore within this next year. We had an ultrasound manufacturer who heard about our program [loan] portable ultrasound equipment to us. It's been a blessing. We could have never moved around the state without it.


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