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Updated: November 16, 2011 12:16PM

JOLIET — Provena Saint Joseph orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Farrell has performed hundreds of surgeries over his career, but four years ago, he went under the knife himself in an emergency open-heart surgery to save his life.

It was a turn-around and a new perspective for the surgeon, and an experience he will never forget.

It was a cold day in December when Farrell had his surgery to repair a dissecting thoracic aortic aneurysm and to replace a valve, but it took him more than a week to make the decision to have a new pain checked out. Physicians, it seems, can be much like their patients when it comes to taking health changes seriously.

“Doctors don’t run to their doctors any more than anyone else,” he said with a laugh.

But looking back, Farrell was told he was fortunate he didn’t lose his life during those few days before he went in for a check-up. The condition was serious.

A thoracic aortic aneurysm is when a weak area on the aorta — the large artery coming out of the heart — bulges out or expands. They are so dangerous because they can burst at any time, causing severe internal bleeding leading rapidly to shock or death.

Farrell said when one bursts, survival rates are low. According to the Society for Vascular Surgery’s website, only about 20 percent to 30 percent of patients who get to the hospital with a ruptured thoracic aneurysm survive.

Even if the vessel ruptured on the table of an operating room, Farrell said, the patient might not survive.

“The quickest you can crack a chest is five minutes,” he said.

Only about half of patients with the condition even have symptoms. Those who do might notice chest or back pain, pain in the jaw or neck, coughing, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing.

A dissecting aneurysm, which was Farrell’s type, occurs when blood flow forces the layers of the aorta apart, weakening the aorta.

Farrell’s symptoms began with an ache in his upper back — not something most would equate with a dangerous heart condition. He thought it was probably a virus coming on and kept practicing. The backache persisted, though, and what he describes as his “coup de gras” was a shortness of breath walking from his car into the hospital.

An echocardiogram followed by a CT scan showed the presence of the aneurysm. Farrell took the news seriously, but perhaps not surprisingly to those who know him, he also had a calm come over him that he attributes to his strong faith.

“I was very much at peace,” he said of learning he was on his way to open-heart surgery. “It was like it was meant to be. I knew it was something I would just have to deal with. I just felt an aura of peace.”

Farrell said his father, who had the same condition, passed away at the age of 50 on the exact date Farrell was diagnosed. His surgery was Dec. 8 — the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was an important observance to Farrell. He had always felt a connection to the Virgin Mother.

“It was meant to be,” he said. “I have a devotion to her, and I think that’s part of it. It was her way of saying thank you … I believe she intervened for me on my behalf. I feel I owe my life to that intercession.”

Farrell was admitted to Provena Saint Joseph immediately, where two medical school buddies of his, Drs. Rudy Altergott and Brian Foy, who founded Provena’s open-heart surgery program 16 years prior, performed the procedures.

It was successful, and he returned to work slowly after a recovery of around three months. Today, he said he’s as good as ever.

“I am working as hard as I used to,” he said.

Farrell said if he learned anything from his experience that he could pass on, it would be to live life in peace.

“None of us know when our last days will be,” he said. “Tomorrow might be your last day. Get rid of the bitterness in your heart and be at peace with other people and with yourself. Why carry bitter baggage around?”

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