FARMINGTON — San Juan Regional Medical Center has begun conducting a surgery to repair abdominal aortic aneurysms — a condition characterized by a ruptured artery that can quickly result in death, medical officials say, often before the patient reaches the emergency room.

Cardiologist Faraz Sandhu is performing the surgeries.

He said men 65 or older who have smoked or continue to smoke are at risk. He says an ultrasound can be used to screen for "AAA."

San Juan Regional Public Relations Coordinator Kathryn Pettijohn was unable to immediately provide the surgery's cost but said it can be billed to insurance.

The abdominal artery is the second largest artery in the body. It pumps blood to the body's lower organs and divides at the belly button directing blood flow to the legs. But when the artery's walls become weak, it can swell.

"It starts to balloon," Sandhu said.

The more the artery balloons, the more its walls thin — and the thinner its walls, the faster it balloons, he said.

"And at some time, it pops," he said.

Many people never have symptoms, and many can never feel the artery swelling, he said. When the artery pops, the person will bleed rapidly and likely die in minutes, he said. If they reach the operating room, about 80 percent of patients still die, he said.

An estimated 42 million people living in America 65 or older are at risk for AAA, according to findings of Life Science Intelligence, a marketing and research company.

Sandhu said an ultrasound can detect a swelling abdominal artery, and patients at risk should ask their doctor for one. When the artery has swollen to almost 2 inches, Sandhu can repair its thinning walls.

Sandhu can insert a blood-tight tube — or stent — into the artery and isolate its thinning walls through small incisions in the groin.

Patients can sometimes return home the same day of their surgery. Many had to drive to Albuquerque before.

"If I was 65 and had an aneurism," he said, "this is what I would want."

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @Dan_J_Schwartz on Twitter.