When Allen Burner woke up on the morning of May 12, 2010, he couldn't possibly know what the day held. What he did know was that his back hurt. That wasn't anything new - he had suffered through a ruptured disc before. So it was only natural to attribute this morning's pain to his bad back.
He dressed and went to work at Community Trust Bank in Huntington, W.Va., where he is market president for the Advantage Valley. His back continued to hurt but Burner, an active golfer, had been tearing up the course in Grayson just two days ago. There was a good chance he'd reinjured his back.
The pain kept getting worse, and the usual things didn't help. About noon, he decided to go home and try to get some relief. He tried ice and heat, but neither helped.
"I didn't really have an appetite, but I thought, well since I'm here I might as well get something to eat. So I age a little bit, jumped back in the car and headed back to work."
On his way, he became nauseated and had to pull over. After vomiting, he decided he better just go home. He continued to try to alleviate the pain. Pain medication he'd been prescribed for his back didn't help. Changing positions didn't help. By now, he'd convinced himself he had a kidney stone.
The decision that saved his life
When his wife, Tammy, arrived at their Catlettsburg home, she suggested a trip to the hospital. "But I wasn't ready yet," Burner said. About 5 p.m., with the pain so intense he was crying out, Burner was finally ready. "The pain was the worst I've ever felt," he said. "It was as if someone stuck a knife in me and just kept digging it in. It never eased up."
Burner, who not only works in Huntington but grew up there, made the decision to go to King's Daughters Medical Center.
"We live just 150 yards from the urgent care and we could have gone there. But I know people at King's Daughters. I had a knee surgery there a while back and I know it's a first-class facility."
When Burner arrived, the ER physician ordered morphine to help with the pain. The preliminary diagnosis was a kidney stone, but the physician wanted a CT to be sure.
"I came back from the CT scan. I remember sitting up in the bed and I just said, 'I don't feel so good.'" That's when Burner lost consciousness.
"When I came to, they were all over me. I had IVs in both arms and in my neck. I heard them talking and I heard the word aneurysm and I said, 'you're not talking about me, are you?'"
The near-death reality
Just a few days short of his 56th birthday, Burner, a healthy, physically fit active man with no family history, suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, also called a Triple A.
A ruptured AAA is a true emergency. Fewer than half of patients nationwide survive the trip to the hospital. Of those who do, survival rates decline 1 percent for every minute of delay in diagnosis and repair. AAA is the 13th leading cause of death in the U.S.
"I didn't have a clue what was going on," Burner said. "They told Tammy to get the family to the hospital to say goodbye. There was an 80 percent chance I wasn't going to make it."
Vascular/endovascular surgeon Omran Abul-Khoudoud, M.D. took Burner to the operating room at midnight. Once in the O.R., the extent of the crisis became obvious. Not only was the aneurysm very large - 8.9 centimeters - it had ruptured in the front.
"Most patients with that kind of rupture just die," Burner said. Dr. Khoudoud replaced the ruptured section with an artificial graft. After three hours in surgery, he sutured everything up and sent Burner to the ICU. Burner had beaten the odds.
"I can't help thinking about how all of these things came together to bring me to King's Daughters. What if it had ruptured while I was playing golf? What if it had ruptured after I vomited ... or if I waited a little longer ... or gone to an urgent care ... or crossed the river instead of going to King's Daughters?"