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Calgary Herald: Practice scan proves to be a lifesaver

Originally published in the Calgary Herald, Business section, page B1, July 7, 2011.

When Gary Watson volunteered to allow Southern Alberta Institute of Technology students to scan his abdomen as part of a lab for the school's medical sonography program last year, little did he know they would uncover a ticking time bomb.

"I was absolutely floored," said Watson.

"Last time I was in the hospital, other than the occasional minor injury, was 60 years ago, when I was seven years old.

"If anybody asked me how my health was, I'd always say it was excellent. Nothing to lie awake about; no problems."

Shortly into the scan, however, then-first year ultrasound program student Jill Schwarzenberger noticed a six-centimetre bulge in Watson's aortic artery.

After informing the instructor, Watson was told to check with his family physician, who then confirmed the presence of the life-threatening aneurysm.

"It's like having an old heater hose on a car swelling up in one spot and getting bigger and bigger," said Watson. "If I hadn't gone in to get it done, I probably wouldn't be standing here talking to you."

Watson was recently back at SAIT on the one-year anniversary of the screening to express his gratitude.

For Schwarzenberger, who will graduate from the ultrasound program in December, it was exciting to have an opportunity to make a difference in somebody's health so early into her career.

"It's very rewarding knowing that's going to be my job later on down the road, and knowing that I potentially helped save somebody's life. Aortic aneurysm is very deadly," she said.

"To be perfectly honest, I'd thought I'd done something wrong at the beginning; I didn't actually believe it was real.

"Once I'd gone over it a few times and realized it was real, I got Carrie to come over and explain to me what was going on."

Diagnostic medical sonography instructor Carrie Hopkins said abdominal aortic aneurysms afflict about 15 per cent of the population and are difficult to detect due to the lack of symptoms.

If such an aneurysm ruptures, the results are often fatal.

"They're not completely rare, but the more we're doing screening and scanning, the more we're seeing them and being able to repair them so they don't become a lethal situation where (the patient) doesn't survive the surgery," Hopkins said.

Meanwhile, Watkins has become a staunch advocate for early screening and detection, particularly for men over the age of 50.

"Just because you feel good doesn't mean you are good -I've always felt healthy," he said. "Male or female over 50 years of age -talk to your doctor.

"You should get one of these," he added.

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