[Skip to Content]
Susan Benton with vascular surgeon Wei Li, MD. He wrote about her in the Journal of Vascular Surgery Cases, Innovations and Techniques. Photo by William Mueller
Susan Benton with vascular surgeon Wei Li, MD. He wrote about her in the Journal of Vascular Surgery Cases, Innovations and Techniques. Photo by William Mueller

A novel surgery saved her life     


A vascular surgeon who is the first to perform an innovative thoracic and abdominal aortic repair recently joined the faculty at Upstate Medical University. 

Wei Li, MD, joined Upstate from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, where he performed the innovative surgery on 58-year-old Susan Benton. At the end of last summer, she traveled from Texas to Syracuse for an appointment with Li. 

The surgery, which involved a major arterial reconstruction, saved Benton’s life. Now, more than 2 1/2 years later, she’s back to her activities, including Tae kwon do. 

In 2021, Benton was winded and in pain, unable to walk more than 200 feet before tiring, and her skin tone was pale. She saw a cardiologist. Multiple tests determined that Benton, a smoker, suffered extensive and complex blockages of her aorta, from her upper chest to her groin. The aorta is the largest artery in the human body. Undetected and without treatment, aortic blockages can lead to organ failure or death. 

Benton had a rare form of aortoiliac occlusive disease, or AIOD, a variant of peripheral artery disease that affects the infrarenal aorta and iliac arteries. The cardiologist referred Benton to Li. 

“He is the absolute best; he is wonderful,” Benton said of Li during her recent visit to Upstate. “When I saw him, he said, ‘You’re in bad condition.’ Then he drew on a paper towel from the sink in my hospital room of how he was going to correct my condition. 

“He then turned to me and said, ‘This has never been done, but I can do it,’” Benton recalled. 

During the nine-hour procedure, Li and his team performed a thoracic and abdominal aortic bypass using a unique transesophageal echocardiogram-guided approach. 

Benton’s recovery was aided by occupational and physical therapists who came to her home. Three to four months after surgery, “I felt like I had never felt before,” she said. “I’m so lucky to have found Dr. Li.” Benton plans to continue traveling to Syracuse to see Li for follow-up care. 

The success of the surgery and Benton’s full recovery, after about five months, proved to the physicians that the procedure can be an effective treatment alternative for future cases of AIOD. Benton and her family were so appreciative of Li that they established the Li & Hudgins (Benton’s maiden name) Vascular Surgery Endowment and Fund to spur further advances. 

At Upstate, Li does complex and innovative aortic surgeries, new minimally invasive procedures for dialysis access and other routine vascular procedures. 

He is one of the physicians who offers fenestrated endovascular aortic repair, or FEVAR, a minimally invasive procedure in which physicians thread a guide wire through the femoral artery to the aneurysm site, so the entire fenestrated stent graft system could be inserted to repair the artery. This preserves blood flow to the kidneys and other organs. Li made headlines as the first physician in the West Texas and Eastern New Mexico region to do this procedure. (Click here to hear Li talk about the FEVAR procedure in a podcast interview.)

Li’s move to Syracuse is a homecoming of sorts, as he served as a general surgery resident at Upstate in 2005 after receiving his medical degree from Tianjin Medical University in China and a Master of Public Health degree from Yale University. 

To request an appointment, call 315-464-8272 and then press 1. 

This article appears in the 2024 Upstate Health magazine, Issue 1.