John owes his life to NHS screening programme

John O'Brien and his wife Steph after the operation
John O'Brien and his wife Steph after the operation

Published on 09 September 2019

Each year in Kent and Medway, 10,000 men are screened for abdominal aortic aneurisms (AAA), a bulge or swelling in the aorta, which is the main blood vessel from the heart.

For most, it’s a simple scan that confirms everything is fine and they can continue with their lives. But for some, it detects a potentially life-threatening issue and they need an operation to prevent the blood vessel bursting, causing catastrophic bleeding.

That was the case for John O’Brien, who shares his story as part of Vascular Disease Awareness Month in September.

John, who lives in Chartham, near Canterbury, was convinced to attend his screening appointment by his wife Steph, a Sister at the William Harvey Hospital. He had no symptoms and was convinced there was no need.

But at the scan, staff spotted a large bulge and he was told he needed urgent surgery.

He said: “Sue, the AAA nurse practitioner, clearly explained what needed to be done and when, and about all the pre-op tests I needed.

“It was an anxious time, despite the reassurance from the medical teams, because it is a major operation and I had never had surgery before.”

Men are six times more likely than women to develop an AAA, and people who smoke also increase their risk by up to 15 times. High blood pressure doubles the risk, and being overweight also increases it.

He said: “It was a very quiet drive to the Kent and Canterbury hospital for the procedure as both Steph and I were lost in our own thoughts.

“I was terrified I wasn’t going to survive the operation but I didn’t want to admit it to Steph.

“When we got to the hospital and had to wait to make sure a bed in intensive care would be available for me, it suddenly felt very real. All too quickly, the time came to walk to theatre and there was no turning back.”

The surgery took several hours and John was taken to ITU to recover. The medical teams initially believed he would be in hospital for up to 10 days, but John was determined to get home sooner and was discharged on day six.

He said: “It wasn’t easy, but I just wanted to be at home. I did as I was told, moved as much as I could and took the painkillers they gave me.

“Once I was home it was just wonderful – the cup of tea and cheese roll I had the afternoon I was discharged was the best food and drink I’d ever tasted.

“It was a slow process but I kept walking, gradually building up the distances, and I was back at work after eight weeks, instead of the three months that was recommended.

“I will be forever grateful to the AAA team and the NHS for the care I received; the whole team, from ward staff to Mr Wilson, the surgeon, were fantastic and the whole family felt supported every step of the way.

“If I hadn’t gone for the screening, I may not be here today, so I really owe them everything.”

People usually don’t have any symptoms but an AAA can be dangerous if it isn’t spotted early on. It can get bigger over time and could burst, causing life-threatening bleeding.

Scans are offered to all men aged 65 and are quick and painless. Results are provided straight away. If a small aneurysm is found, patients will be invited back for regular scans to see if it is getting bigger. Large aneurysms usually need to be operated on. But most people are told they have no aneurysm and need no treatment.

For more information on Vascular Disease Awareness Month, visit https://www.circulationfoundation.org.uk/event/vascular-disease-awareness-month

For more on the Trust’s screening programme, see https://www.ekhuft.nhs.uk/patients-and-visitors/services/abdominal-aortic-aneurysm-screening/