Happy 10th Annie-versary to Me!

Brain Aneurysm Survivor
My story in bullet points.

10 years ago today, my life changed when an 11mm (almost 1/2″ in size) brain aneurysm ruptured around 4:30 in the morning. Happy 10th Annie-versary to Me! That’s what brain aneurysm survivors call the anniversary of the day they found out they had a brain aneurysm, the day they had their surgery, or the day it ruptured. Each year a survivor is alive is a celebration and one that should be marked in some fashion. After losing my sister and my husband’s niece to sudden ruptured, and undetected brain aneurysms, I know all too well the horrific, and sudden toll this silent killer can take on families.

Last week I was lucky enough to take part in a brain aneurysm survivor’s breakfast in New York City leading up to the Cerebral Affair Gala that same night. Both events were hosted by two of the biggest players in the brain aneurysm awareness community: The Lisa Colagrossi Foundation and The Joe Niekro Foundation. As with our support group in Portland each month, the stories survivors tell are remarkable, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at the same time. Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s brain aneurysm is different. And everyone’s struggle is different. However, we all share the same fears and anxiety that come with surviving. Why did I survive when countless other’s did not? Is the headache I have right now a symptom of another rupture? If I had one aneurysm, is it a certainty I’ll get another one?

Fellow Survivors & their Family Members
Some of the survivors & their family members who attended the survivors round-table and breakfast.

The survivor’s breakfast was a profound reminder of just how important it is that survivors tell their stories again and again to everyone and anyone who will listen. You never now when YOUR story will resonate with one person and one life could be saved.

I HAD heard the terms “brain aneurysm” prior to my rupture in 2006, but I had no idea it could be hereditary in some cases and I had no idea the damage it could do. I vaguely remember the ER doctor coming in and asking me if anyone in my family has a brain aneurysm. I THINK I may have said “yes” because my cousin Debbie had just gone through coiling a few years prior and I know my cousin Tim had suffered a rupture.

When the doctor said I had a ruptured brain aneurysm that was bleeding, I remember thinking “Well, that can’t be good.” I’m one of the lucky ones to even have any knowledge and memory of those events and discussions. For many, the damage with the initial rupture is too great to overcome. I am still able to work the job I left for six months to recover back in 2006. I am still able to drive. Many are not.

My deficits are embarrassingly minor compared to others. Fatigue lasted a LONG time. Maybe years. I was lucky enough to NOT have major headaches for long periods of time after my rupture but bending over at certain angles still causes discomfort. I can’t say it’s pain, but it isn’t pleasant. And coughing still causes discomfort and my brain can get easily over stimulated with visual or vocal clutter.

Because my rupture was coiled, I didn’t have any outward indication of surviving a brain injury unlike the craniotomy I endured in 2014 for a second un-ruptured brain aneurysm. I think that’s why people can assume you’re fine. Outwardly, you DO look fine, but inwardly, we are suffering and struggling and only another survivor can understand that.

The 2nd brain aneurysm I had was clipped and after my last angiogram, it appears to have completely gone away. The first one that ruptured 10 years ago this morning, is STILL giving me issues. The 16 platinum coils inserted into it started to compact after five years, then four more coils were added and a stent was inserted to allow the blood to flow PAST the aneurysm instead of into it. However, there is still a little remnant of blood between the neck and the stent. It’s the annie that won’t go away.

This is my BrainSome days I still struggle with the not knowing. I truly hate the “watch and wait” option. Been there, still doing that. But this bugger is not an “easy fix” at this point. If it starts to enlarge or change shape, more coils could be in order. Sure, why not! Let’s load me up with more metal. 20 coils, a stent, and a clip. My Brain Bling!

As I was reminded during the survivor’s breakfast last week in NYC, I need to remember how blessed I am and that I should continue to be grateful. I AM grateful and I know I am blessed, but I have also been devastated by brain aneurysms in losing my sister, leaving a 15-year old son behind. I’m devastated by Dave’s niece Kim dying at the far-too young age of 32 and being found by her mother. No one should have to endure that and it broke my heart.

If my long, often soap-boxy blog can help just one person and educate anyone about brain aneurysms, then I am doing something right. I am doing something positive and I am doing SOMETHING to help shed light on the deadly consequences of ignoring symptoms that could kill you or a loved one.

I suppose God left ME here to be one of the voices for those who aren’t with us anymore. It is my honor to do so.

Me! Brain Aneurysm Survivor

Thank you to all of those people who supported me during that time I was in the hospital 10 years ago and the following months of initial recovery. I couldn’t have done any of it without my Maine man, however. He’s my rock, my chauffeur, my nurse, my sounding board, and my love. I am blessed to have had him in my life 10 years ago to help save me.

Learn about brain aneurysms and spread the word! Symptoms of a Brain Aneurysm

Life. Support. Music.

At last month’s brain aneurysm support group, we watched a documentary about a musician from New York City who, against all odds, survived a ruptured AVM. Through the amazing support group around him including family and friends, he was able to not only recover, but prove most of the doctors wrong with their devastating diagnosis’.  Watch a brief follow-up online about the documentary with Jason and his sister HERE.

Tonight, we were able to meet Jason Crigler in person, hear his story first hand, and ask him questions. There truly aren’t enough descriptive adjectives to convey what one feels after hearing and seeing Jason’s story.

In 2005, soon after he returned home from a year-long stay in the hospital, Jason's family (his daughter, wife and father) take him for a walk in the woods.

He is a soft-spoken, warm, and funny man. If you didn’t know his story, one would never know the extent of the struggles he and his young family have had to endure.

Jason’s story was documented by a friend who video taped much of his early recovery and made it into a critically-acclaimed documentary called LIFE. SUPPORT. MUSIC. It’s painful to watch, especially as a survivor of a brain injury myself. He could be me…I could be him. The uphill battles are all very similar, but Jason was very motivate to recover with a new-born baby girl, a budding music career in New York City and a family that sacrificed their own lives and comfort to care for him on an hourly basis.

Tonight was very special and it’s a damn shame more people (even from our own groups) could not attend this widely publicized event. The old adage, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, held true tonight I guess. You get what you give…and some people give more than they have to give, but receive very little in return. It’s a damn shame.

Jason’s story is a story that needs to be heard and obsorbed. I only wish I could speak as eloquently and effectively as Jason does, or I’d take my little stent, coil & clip show on the road too. But who the hell would show up to listen to me? Probably only just a few. I know my story isn’t nearly as compelling. We can’t even get an article written about our group.

There was one article written a couple of years ago. About a woman who only came to our meetings maybe two times. She was certainly very attractive & photogenic and lived in an influential area, so that right there was two up on me. Even the one small TV spot we DID have ended up being shared by a completely un-related disease, so we couldn’t even get a full 2-minute spot for ourselves. Really? What DO we have to do????

But…even if we did…would it make any difference? We met a few new people tonight and we welcomed them with open arms as we always do. I hope we see them again and that they spread the word about our group and our efforts to raise brain aneurysm awareness in the state. Exposure could save lives….WE could save lives.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a group like ours (or at least that one special person) that gives such personal attention to those who have reached out to us. I don’t think the president of many organizations would send personalized emails complete with moving letters and related photos to someone who writes and donates and expressed great regret they’ll be unable to attend this year’s event after having attended all of the other previous ones. I think it’s the personal touch that sets us apart from other groups. The behind-the-scenes workings are amazing and the hard work that goes into every event, every email, every newsletter, and meeting follow up, is more than most are doing. Does it matter?

People need to DO more. They are not and it could mean lives of people are being lost as a result. Picking up food for an event will feed the volunteers and participants. For one day out of YOUR life, you could help an event run smoothly and make it a success, meaning those who attended and those who heard about it and read our materials will remember what the event was about and LEARN….and potentially save a life of the next person who has the “worst headache of my life”.

(stepping down off my soap-box now)……back to Jason Crigler.

Jason’s positive & simple attitude about his AVM and recovery is truly inspirational. Many things he spoke about tonight touched me deeply and certainly would have touched a lot more people if they had taken the long hour and a half out of their busy lives.

One thing he said was that there is “strength & power in thought”. We can choose to think we’re failing or think we’re succeeding and it can truly effect the rest of your body. He admits to bad days and depression and despair just like the rest of us, but it’s reminding yourself of the struggles you HAVE overcome and how far you have come that one needs to be reminded of. We all have struggles on a day-to-day basis, but it’s how you deal with, and think about them, that can lead you to a path of strength and power.

I needed to hear those words tonight. My 10-year Annie-versary of my ruptured brain aneurysm is coming up on Oct. 4th. I’m lucky to be here. I know that. I also know others haven’t been so lucky and if sharing my story can save one life, I’m going to do it. If complaining about a lack of support can garner a little bit more, then I’m going to do it.

My sister died from a ruptured brain aneurysm. I had to see her lying in a hospital bed completely unresponsive on a ventilator, with her head shaved, with wires in her open skull and a drain relieving blood from her brain. She was basically gone at that point but we held out hope for a miracle. It never came. I may have failed saving my own sister in educating her enough on the signs and symptoms, but I MAY be able to save one other person. I MAY be able to help one person recognize the symptoms and get them to a hospital in time.

I have to hold on to that…otherwise, why was I saved and Dori wasn’t and why was I saved and Dave’s beautiful 32-year old niece Kim wasn’t? Two beautiful, sweet, funny souls who did nothing but good for others. I’m not nearly as beautiful or sweet, so I have funny going for me…and a chance to DO something in this world and get the word out and share my story.

I may not have friends who care enough about me to film a  documentary, come to our events and support me, tour the country and make money from it, but I DO know I am blessed to be here still.

THANK YOU Jason, for sharing your story, answering our questions, and driving all the way up to Portland to meet with us. And thank you for making people aware of the struggles people with brain injuries can endure…and more importantly, can overcome. You’re a true inspiration!

 

Photo Shoot & Angiogram Follow Up

This morning my super model brain aneurysm posed for another photo. If I have many more MRIs/MRAs, I’ll stick to the fridge.

The reason for today’s photo shoot was to get a good baseline MRA shot of my large aneurysm and hopefully I can just continue to have MRAs instead of the more invasive cerebral angiograms in the future until they’re needed.

Thankfully, the Dr’s office was able to schedule the MRA on the same day as my follow up appointment for my angiogram that I had earlier in the month. So we headed out early to get to Scarborough by 8:15 a.m.

And it figures, today of all days, I get an ocular migraine right at 8 and had trouble seeing out of my right eye walking into the facility and in the MRA suite. It cleared up actually during the MRA and I could see fine afterwards. Thankfully they don’t cause me pain, just visual disturbance for about 30 minutes and I typically just don’t feel great the rest of the day.

At the Dr’s office we looked at the images of the aneurysm from my angiogram as well as this morning’s MRA, which did show that remnant area where blood is getting back into the neck of the aneurysm. It appears to be below the coils and above the stent. We also looked at previous images and compared any changes to the size and shape for the little bugger.

Since the size and shape it basically the same since last year’s scans, the Dr. is recommending we wait and have an MRA again in two years and if it changes, we’ll add more coils. MORE coils. There are currently 20 pumped into it. Perhaps I really SHOULD call this aneurysm a super model….maybe it’s like continuing to get more Botox.

I’m not sure what results I was expecting from this appointment, but the watching and waiting to get more coils made me disappointed. I was hoping for something more permanent so I didn’t have to worry about this damn thing anymore. If 16 coils, then an additional 4 coils, then a stent weren’t able to stop the blood from getting into it, aren’t more coils also at risk of not working either?

I am struggling on trying to find the positive side of this determination. I DID agree to it but I’m the one who has to walk around with this unstable thing in my brain. I trust my doctor and I know if he felt it was an issue, he’d recommend the coiling NOW, but he doesn’t feel it’s a problem and currently, there are no other permanent procedures that would take care of my wonky arteries. Perhaps in two years something new will come out that CAN be placed inside a stent. Or the remnant will rupture…..see what I did there? I’m normally very positive, but this one is tough. It’ll come, just not tonight.

The good news was that the aneurysm that was clipped in 2014 looks “stunning”! LOL He is just so darned happy with himself for that picture-perfect clipping and I’m glad I was the lucky recipient of it. There! I found something positive.

This Year’s Angiogram

I’m seriously hoping this is my last angiogram for awhile. I’ve seen that angriography suite far too often the last several years. However, it’s the best way to see what’s really going on with my pesky vascular system.

As stated in my previous blog entry, this angiogram was to determine if there were any changes to my original 11mm brain aneurysm from last year when it was discovered more blood was starting to creep back into the neck of the aneurysm. Obviously, the 20 coils and the one stent weren’t doing the best job they could be, but I’m still here.

Since there was a chance I’d be staying overnight, I had to go to admissions first and check in, then we went straight to the radiology department. They were quite busy today, although I reminded myself I’m usually scheduled for much earlier appointments. This is the first time I’ve had an afternoon appointment and I was VERY hungry and thirsty after not having anything to eat or drink since midnight the night before.

Upon entering radiology, Dave and I were greeted from a distance by nurse John, who we usually see when we arrive there. It’s a mixed blessing when you’ve visited a place so often you become so familiar with the staff of a hospital. John told my attending nurse that I didn’t need any instruction because I knew exactly what I was supposed to do in here. LOL Yes…pretty true.

The IV was hooked up, more questions were asked, and more instruction was given. We were most curious about the balloon occlusion test and what that entailed.

The BOT is a little more risky and it would also require another port and catheter into my other arm where something would be injected to bring my blood pressure down during the test. I wasn’t looking forward to TWO catheters. Dr. Ecker explained the risks and why they’d keep me over night as more of a precaution. If I was doing great after the whole thing I could potentially go home and not have to stay.

I said my good-bye’s to Dave and was wheeled into the radiology angiography suite. As usual, the teams assembled for every single angiogram I’ve had at Maine Medical Center are top notch and always make me feel comfortable and at ease. Even though I’ve gone through many of these, it’s still a nervous time.

They allowed me to request a music station on their Pandora internet radio that was piped into the suite. I chose 80’s Throwback music. As the doctor walked in he said the music was a step up from the morning sessions. I said “You’re welcome”.

So enough of the pleasantries and on to the drugs, please! I’ve always had some pretty good pain when the catheter in my groin is inserted and I always request a little extra something special. Thankfully, they complied and it wasn’t too bad. They also inserted the IV into my left arm to prepare for a catheter for the balloon occlusion test. That was a little painful as well, but it didn’t last long.

I know many people don’t understand why my groin hurts after having X-rays done on my brain. Aren’t they a tad far away from each other? Well, yes, but inserting a dye into that area gives a direct flight into the brain via one of the main cerebral arteries. I’m not sure why it’s going from the groin and not up higher on the body, such as the neck or chest, but it works, so I’m not going to question it.

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During the angiogram, they take a series of images of the arteries then inject a dye to see exactly where the blood is flowing and take another series of X-rays. When the dye is injected I see a series of small horizontal lightning strikes behind my left eye. It’s brief, but weird. I keep my eyes closed during the whole thing, mainly because I’m dopey and can’t see anything without my glasses anyway, but because there is usually part of the machine directly above my head and there isn’t anything to see anyway.

After the initial angiogram, Dr. Ecker compared images taken last year at this time with the ones he just took. He was able to pull them up on the screen side-by-side, then even overlap them. He indicated there was absolutely NO change from last year, which was great news. Then he was questioning if we should even go ahead with the balloon occlusion test at that point since nothing had changed.

The main reason we were going to do the balloon occlusion test in the first place was to see if my vascular setup could even handle such a reversal of blood flow should a I NEED to have something dramatic done to prevent more blood from getting into the brain aneurysm.

Since there didn’t appear to be any immediate need for that, based on this angiogram, we both decided to forgo the BOT this time. I was okay with that. I wasn’t looking forward to more pain, or an overnight stay. However, a part of me was disappointed we just didn’t do it and get it over with now so we’ll know down the road.

Because they had expected to do a lot more, the large team assembled for this big event wasn’t really needed now and the last thing remaining in the radiology suite was the dreaded “plug”, or Angio-Seal™. The angio-seal is a small device that basically closes up the puncture site in the groin. However, since he used a larger catheter for today’s procedure, that larger plug was needed. It can be quite painful, mainly because I’ve been “poked so many times” as he said. Lucky me!

Why, yes…it WAS painful and they had to tell me to calm down, relax, and keep my leg down. I did. Still hurt. LOL The UPSIDE of using the closure device is that I only have to lay flat in recovery for two hours, not four or more hours if they were simply to apply preasure to the site for 15 minutes. The angio-seal allows the bleeding to stop much more rapidly and a quicker discharge from the hospital So, that’s the trade off for the pain.

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The seal is comprised of three absorbable components: a small anchor, collagen, and a suture. The doctor guides the anchor through the hole created during the procedure where it is drawn in against the wall of the artery and the suture and collegian compact to create a secure seal over the entry point in the groin. All three components dissolve and are absorbed into my body in about 90 days. I’ll have an odd bump there for awhile, but the pain should ease after a few days.

The recovery in the radiology department is always long, but it seemed more so this time because they kind of forgot to offer me any food or water. It wasn’t until Dave asked them about an hour into my stay that I got a sandwich and some water. That’s highly unlike that crew and I was a little surprised.

Once they had me up on my feet for a short walking test and determined I wasn’t dizzy or unstable, I was discharged and walked out on my own. The only stop on the way home was at McDonalds for a shamrock shake! ‘Tis the season and it tasted sooooo good.

I developed quite a nasty headache on the ride home and was very glad we didn’t live any further than the 60 miles away we already did. The second I got in the door I had a cold cloth ready, heated my beanbag neck wrap, and crawled into bed for a good 7 hours. All the while keeping a pillow over my groin area so the cats wouldn’t jump directly on it. They did very good….been there, done that and I think they knew mommy wasn’t feeling well and cuddled with me all night.

My sleeping and eating pattern is all out of whack now and my groin is still giving me some pain. I’m pretty tired and not real stable. My head is going back and forth on whether it wants to bother me or not, but nothing I can’t handle. I’ve been in worse pain, been in worse condition, and I’m just lucky to be here.

However, there still is that lingering “issue”. Blood has gotten back into my original brain aneurysm and it’s still sitting there. Dr. Ecker wants me to get an MRA so we have a really good baseline image as it stands right now, then we’re hoping to just have MRA’s next time and not have to go through an angiogram as frequently. I’m all for that. Not that I enjoy MRA’s, but it’s far less invasive than angiograms, just loud and annoying. Then if they notice a change on an MRA, another angiogram will be ordered for a closer look.

I came away from this angiogram with mixed feelings. Yes, it’s great news that things hadn’t changed from last year, BUT there is still blood sitting there in the neck of a brain aneurysm that has already ruptured and we haven’t really resolved what to do with that. It’s almost a deja vu of last year. Something I guess I’ll still worry about until we see otherwise one way or the other. I don’t feel like I’m out of the woods yet from that pesky 11mm brain aneurysm. I should give it a name…any suggestions? (Keep it clean!)