Deborah Welch, Carotid Artery Blockage

After her brother’s stroke in January 2009, Deborah Welch, then 54, decided to check on her own health status and make certain that she was not at risk of the same. She attended a health screening at the annual Heart Wise event at The University of Tennessee Medical Center in Feb. 2009, and was startled to hear what they discovered. Deborah’s carotid artery screening, which included an ultrasound examination, revealed that she had 80% carotid artery blockage in the artery on one side of her neck and 40% blockage on the other.

“I just wanted to see where I stood since my brother’s stroke,” Deborah says. “I had other risk factors including family history, and I worried about my own health. I didn’t know there was anything wrong. I didn’t feel bad.” Deborah, in fact, had several risk factors for stroke and heart attack including diabetes, family history and being a smoker, but she did not have any symptoms.

Carotid artery blockage is the narrowing of the main arteries in the neck that supply blood to the brain caused by plaque in a blood vessel. This condition greatly increases your chances of a stroke by blocking much needed blood flow to the brain and face. Several types of treatments are available including medication and surgery.

Deborah’s first choice for treatment was UT Medical Center where her brother had been treated when he had a stroke. Deborah met with Dr. Michael B. Freeman, a vascular surgeon with University Vascular Surgery at UT Medical Center. They discussed her treatment, which would include surgery as well as lifestyle changes that could greatly impact her health. Dr. Freeman’s greatest concern was the plaque in her artery that had already started to break up, which can then close off an artery enough to cause a stroke.

In April 2009, Deborah underwent a carotid endarterectomy to remove the 80% blockage. Carotid endarterectomy is a procedure that restores proper blood flow to the brain. It involves an open operation through a neck incision where the blockage is removed, the artery is repaired and blood flow is restored.

Deborah was able to return home after a few days. She still requires blood pressure pills and monitors her heart rate. Dr. Freeman also regularly monitors the other side with the 40% blockage. “I am so glad that we have UT Medical Center,” Deborah says. “You know that they are ahead of everyone else, because it is a teaching hospital. They all are so attentive and kind, too.”

The vascular surgeons at UT Medical Center lead East Tennessee’s only training program for vascular surgery fellows and offer advanced surgical procedures, complete noninvasive vascular system testing and expertise in diseases of the arteries and veins.

Deborah highly encourages people to receive regular screenings. “None of us like dealing with health issues, but it is part of getting older,” she says. “When these screenings are made available, you need to actively participate. It could save your life as it did mine.”