By Jennifer Clopton
"You’re lucky," the radiologist said to me. "Thinking you had a bad sinus infection likely saved your life."
I had just gotten an MRI because my ears had felt plugged for weeks. Medications hadn’t resolved it and a CAT scan hadn’t turned up an explanation, so my doctor was hoping an MRI would offer some clues.
I went into the scan thinking I had sinus problems and came out discovering I had a life threatening brain aneurysm.
If I hadn’t had that MRI of my brain, I would have continued on, not knowing an aneurysm was growing inside my brain. An aneurysm is a weak spot in a blood vessel in your brain. While it can be there for long periods of time without causing problems, the bigger it gets, the greater the risk it will leak or explode. This bleeding in the brain is called a hemorrhagic stroke and it can be life threatening, leave people in comas, or result in permanent brain damage.
The radiologist meant I was lucky because none of that had happened yet. But she spoke with great urgency – stressing that I needed to call my doctor immediately before even returning to my car. She said we needed to start planning our next steps right away.
I had heard the term brain aneurysm before but I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, so I did a quick Internet search on my phone and promptly burst into tears. It feels impossible to process this kind of information when you are first told about it, especially because I’d had no headaches or other symptoms to put me on alert. To suddenly be told you have a ticking time bomb inside your head is beyond shocking and terrifying.
I can promise you that I didn’t feel lucky in that moment. I felt stunned, scared and shocked. I remember sitting there for who knows how long having a really good cry. You are struck by just how precious life is and how much you want to be a part of it. It’s almost paralyzing to feel that it’s suddenly at risk.
It’s also completely overwhelming to chart your next steps for dealing with a potentially life-threatening condition while sitting in the lobby of a radiology office. But while time seemed to stop for me, everyone else jumped into action at lightening speed. After calling my husband and mom to fill them in, we called my doctor. At that point, it felt like I stepped on a conveyer belt that took me exactly where I needed to go.
I quickly learned just how fast the medical world moves when you have a brain aneurysm. I’m used to calling doctors in our area and being told that new patients have to wait months to be seen. But when I started calling neurologists, they offered help that same day. ‘Honey, why don’t you just come over to us right now,’ the first receptionist kindly said when I explained what was going on. I took her up on the offer and was talking with the doctor in her office within the hour.
I wanted multiple opinions before having brain surgery, and a consensus quickly developed. Given the size of the aneurysm in my brain, which they think had likely been growing since my 20s, all the doctors I met with felt I needed surgery as quickly as possible to remove it. Time was of the essence, especially because each new, more advanced scan I got gave us better and better looks at the aneurysm and revealed it was bigger than we first thought, raising my rupture risk.
While I started out feeling overwhelmed, I focused on my main goal: To live. My daughter was 4 at the time. I was married and doing work I loved. I had a lot to live for and was willing to do whatever was necessary to make that happen.
So one week after doctors discovered my aneurysm, I had my first surgical procedure - an angiogram, which is a medical imaging technique that looks at blood vessels. My surgeon was able to clarify the location of the aneurysm and the size. One week later I went back into the surgery room so doctors could remove it.
Doctors, nurses and hospital support staff kept telling me how lucky I was, but I still didn’t feel it. They said that not only because I caught the aneurysm before it ruptured, but also because it was at the base of the skull. That meant my surgeon could access it by entering through my groin, as amazing as that sounds. He used something called a Pipeline, a microcatheter that is put across the aneurysm in the blood vessel to restrict blood flow to it. It’s intended to deflate the aneurysm over time, like slowly letting the air out of a balloon.
I was incredibly nervous going into the procedure. While I’d been told it had a 94 to 96 percent success rate, the complications experienced by the other 4 to 6 percent are terrifying and potentially deadly. My surgeon was very clear about those risks, but I didn’t have a choice. The surgery had to be done.
It was over within an hour. I spent the night at the hospital and 12 hours in the intensive care unit. That was the scariest time because nurses checked me multiple times an hour for those life-threatening complications. But thankfully I sailed through and 18 hours after the procedure, I went home. My groin area was really sore and I was exhausted and had a bad headache for a few days. But mostly I remember feeling giddy and grateful to be alive.
I rested for about a week, and 10 days later I felt back to normal. When I went back 6 months later for my follow up angiogram, the aneurysm was gone. The scary looking balloon we had clearly seen on the scan was nowhere to be found. Next to photos of my children, it’s probably the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen.
There is a chance of recurrence although it’s slim. Five years later, I still have regular checks by CAT scan or MRI, and all have been clear. Having made it through this whirlwind of an experience, I can honestly tell you that now I do feel so very lucky.
Since my surgery I’ve heard about so many others who weren’t so fortunate - people who didn’t know they had a brain aneurysm until it burst. Some have died. Others require emergency surgery that can be very invasive and require extensive and difficult rehabilitation.
So shortly after my surgery, my mother and sister had MRIs to check if they were at risk since there is some research indicating brain aneurysms are genetic. Thankfully both were clear.
I’m now constantly encouraging others to get checked too if this runs in their family. You just don’t want to learn you have a brain aneurysm by having it rupture. As scary as it is to discover that one has been growing in your brain for years, I’m here to tell you that could in fact be one of the luckiest things to ever happen to you.
Jennifer Clopton is a freelance writer who writes regularly for WebMD. She is based in the Washington, D.C. area.