The Families

Since 2006 when my first brain aneurysm ruptured, Dave and I have come in contact with hundreds of families effected by brain aneurysms not only in Maine but throughout the country. Although some friendships and communications have varied in frequency as they have weaved their way through our lives over the years, their stories remain with us.

We shared last nights annual Dance for Brain Aneurysm Awareness fundraising event with many of those families. Today, I am reflecting on just how vast the brain aneurysm community is. Not only do Dave and I have contact with survivors and those who have lost a loved one, but we have met and become involved in the lives of their family members as well.

Learning how brain aneurysms effect an entire family is a part of OUR lives through the work we do with our group and each story effects us.

Last night I danced for the first time with a fellow survivor we’ve known for several years. He is a walking miracle. His recovery from a severe brain aneurysm rupture is remarkable. Learning to walk again, overcoming dramatic emotional struggles, and a memory pathway that is forever changed. I’m pretty sure I never stopped smiling while dancing with Dan for many reasons: he is a survivor, he is a fantastic dancer, and we have gotten to know his wife and young children. We know his life now. He is a part of our extended brain aneurysm family.

Everyone’s struggle is different, but the cause is not. Brain aneurysms can rip a family apart or bring it closer together. Dave and I have experienced both of those results with many of the people we have met and as a result we also begin to care and worry about their family members. We now know their children, their siblings, their grandchildren, their parents, their co-workers, and even their pets.

Some people have a massive amount of support from family and friends while other’s are not as fortunate. We hope those who don’t have that larger support system feel a sense of community and encouragement when spending time with others at our events. It’s vital we show them they’re not alone in their struggles.

With relatively new “family” member and brain aneurysm survivor, Carol.

The date of our annual Dance for Awareness is not by accident. The birthdays of two young women lost to ruptured brain aneurysms fall around this time: Kim Tudor, Dave’s niece, and Karolina Kurka.

Karolina’s family, during a time of intense grieving, came to our walk only a few weeks after losing Karolina. Since then, their family has joined ours in raising awareness and bringing their friends and extended family into the fold.

Each year after the dance, a small, solemn, informal ceremony takes places outside in the parking lot. A release of balloons, in the colors we use to represent Kim and Karolina, are released to the night sky into the heavens to honor them both on their birthdays. Some years it’s a small group, other years, it’s a larger group, but it’s always meaningful to the family and friends of these two young girls taken far too soon. This year, Kim’s mom Nancy, and Karo’s mom Mira, released the balloons.

One shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate the lives of those lost. It is very easy to let the tragedy and grief of their deaths overshadow the joy of the years we DID have with them.

I thank all of the families of those we have met over the years for inadvertently reminding me that it’s okay to remember the family members I have lost. It’s okay to celebrate their lives through OUR lives and it’s okay to allow someone else to love you and support you. THANK YOU!

Paws to Pause

For many who attended our 10th annual KAT-Walk for Brain Aneurysm Awareness yesterday, they probably did not catch the significance of a special moment for our family personally.

Because this was the 10th anniversary of the KAT-Walk named in honor of Kim, Dave’s niece who died from a ruptured brain aneursym, there were some special moments dedicated to Kim’s memory yesterday. One of those moments was the start of the walk.

The start of the FIRST KAT-Walk in 2009 was lead by Dave, myself, Kim’s mom Nancy, and Kim’s pug, Bella. Bella has been there to lead every KAT-Walk since Kim’s death, except yesterday because she passed away earlier this year after a long battle with illness.

Bella the dog leading the 2009 KAT-Walk
Bella leading the 2009 KAT-Walk

A month ago, our brain aneurysm group was lucky enough to be a featured community organization at a Portland Sea Dog’s game. The Sea Dogs are a double-A minor league team for the Boston Red Sox. As a part of our efforts that night, we had asked if their mascot, Slugger the Dog, could attend our KAT-Walk & Karo-5k to add some special local flavor.

Slugger showed up and had a lot of fun with those in attendance. Earlier in the week, I had suggested we start the walk with Slugger taking the place of Bella since it was the 10th year of the walk. Dave thought it was a great idea and Slugger helped Nancy and I hold the original banner created by Dave for the first KAT-Walk to start the walk.

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Carrying that banner with Nancy was sad, but also a proud moment because of the work we have done in Kim’s name and for those touched by brain aneurysms.

Times are changing.  People move away. Pets pass away. Our committe members are getting older. It gets more difficult to find willing, and physically able volunteers each year to produce the kind of event we want to provide the brain aneurysm community. But the hard work is worth it when hundreds of people show up to support each other and our efforts to raise awareness.

THANK YOU to everyone who attended and/or donated this year. We could not do it without YOU! And thank you to Slugger and the Portland Sea Dogs, for providing some comedic relief and a helping paw in a special moment.

 

I Hope You Dance

Our 6th annual Dance for Brain Aneurysm Awareness was held last night. Thankfully, we dodged a bullet with all of the snow storms around us and a cold, but clear night greeted the guests at the legion hall in Westbrook, Maine.

For the first time, we held a “theme” dance and this year the choice was an 80’s theme. Some of the 80’s-inspired outfits were truly fun and brought back a lot of memories for me in my 20’s. Yes, I’m aging myself there.

As people started to filter in, the drinks started to flow, the music started to pick up, and the money jumped out of people’s hands. The numbers haven’t been tallied yet, but we feel there was a great turnout and that a lot of money was raised to go towards education, awareness, and other brain aneurysm events. Granted, we’d still like to get some education and awareness out there, but it’s truly not the perfect event for that kind of interaction. Most of the people are there because they know someone who has been affected by brain aneurysms, and that’s enough for us.

I can only do so much helping to setup and I’m horrible with math and money so I leave that up to the experts.  As a result, I don’t feel very “needed” during this event and the loud music & flashing lights from the DJ doesn’t lend itself to in-depth conversations at the tables. It’s all about the drinking and dancing. I’m just a survivor.

Dancing to a good song is something I love to do and this is basically the only time of the year I do it. The last few years I have only danced to one or two songs throughout the evening. Usually it’s Bruno Mars…I just can’t sit when Uptown Funk is played.

I have taken photographs the last couple of years during the event and try to take photos of people at the tables and on the dance floor. Our committe member LeRay is a 40+ year brain aneurysm survivor and I caught her dancing with fellow committe member, Mira, who lost her daughter Karolina to a ruptured brain aneurysm. It was a poignant  reflection of the evening to see these two dancing hand in hand in the middle of a circle of friends and family.

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Mira & LeRay Dancing

As I was smiling and enjoying watching LeRay dance, a woman I didn’t know came up beside me to indicate she hopes her family drags HER up on the dance floor when she is LeRay’s age. I smiled and said “I hope so to!” And meant it. Then my own story caught up with me.

Perhaps it was the nostalgia of the evening with the music and outfits, but I was hit by a wave of emotion as I thought about my own story and how I loved to dance with my sisters and my mother. Pain ripped through my heart and the tears started to form as I remembered I’d never get to dance with my mom and sisters again…until I meet them again.

Thankfully everyone seemed to be ON the dance floor at that moment so I made my way through the crowd with my camera in hand to get some air. Dave caught sight of me as I was struggling and I tried to tell him what had happened. I’m not sure I did a very good job of explaining and know that there wasn’t much he could say to me at that moment to make me feel better, but he gave me a strong hug and asked if I was going to be okay. I said yes, but knew I just needed to get out of the building for a bit and get some fresh air, which I did.

Breathing in that fresh, Maine winter air was a welcome respite and I was soon joined outside by Rob Kurka, whose mother MIra was just dancing with LeRay. Rob knows the pain of losing a sister (Karolina) to a brain aneurysm as well and he was kind enough to listen and agree with me that it just “sucks”. We also agreed that people who complain about really, really minor things that don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of life, are truly annoying. LOL I almost think Kim and Karolina sent Rob (and perhaps myself) outside for us to have that moment together. Then I went and screwed it all up by asking him a personal/political/military question. I’ll blame the beer.

I went back inside and was then pulled on to the dance floor by a stranger. It was fun dancing with him and I was grateful he insisted. I’m grateful and blessed to be here TO dance. I’m grateful we have our small group here in Maine to bring awareness and educate people about brain aneurysms, and I’m grateful for those who put in so much work gathering silent auction items, selling tickets, setting up chairs & tables, bartending, DJing, and buying food for the dance. I think everyone had a great time!

Even though I suffered an emotional lapse, I know there are many angels watching over me and that they were dancing with me…even when I was dancing all by myself.

”Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

I hope you dance, I hope you dance.”

Lyrics “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack

Dancing at my wedding.
My sisters and I dancing at my wedding.

So Many Stories

Kim and Dori
Kim and Dori will be honored on the car.

It has been five years since my sister Dori died from a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was the same age I am now. She left behind a 15-year old son. She didn’t live to see her son turn 16 later that same year and wish him a happy birthday. She didn’t live to see him graduate from high school and give him a hug and tell him how proud she was of him.

Dori’s story is just one of the many brain aneurysm-related stories  my husband and I tell when we meet other people. We have met so many over the last 11 years.  So many wonderful, uplifting survival stories, but also too many heart-breaking reminders of  the devastating, life-changing effects a brain aneurysm can have on a family.

I survived my first brain aneurysm rupture in 2006, but just two years later Dave’s niece Kim died suddenly of a rupture at the young age of 32. Heart-breaking, soul-shattering and devastating our small family to the core.

Each year we meet more individuals, more relatives, more survivors, and more medical people with brain aneurysms being the common thread that binds us.

Dave and I didn’t ask for this cause. No one does. If found us.  After Kim died, we could have easily turned away and ignored the reason behind her death and behind my near-death experience. I could have walked out of the hospital after 20 days and 6-months of recovery and never wanted anything to do with brain aneurysms again. Some do. They think once the doctor “fixes” them, they’re all set to go on with life and never look back.

However, to ignore the issues that brought us to that life-threatening event, or to ignore the sudden death of a loved one or friend, is to give this disease the upper hand and potentially kill & disable people.

Yes, we started the KAT-Walk in 2009 to honor Dave’s niece, but we also want to educate the public to the symptoms and treatments available for brain aneurysms.  Our event, and other events throughout the year, have become bigger than just a local walk to honor a beautiful, vibrant young woman.

It’s the STORIES that continue to steer this wee boat in the storm.

It’s the STORIES that show us the incredible strength one person can have despite overwhelming odds and despair..

It’s the STORIES that tear out your heart and remind you just how precious life is.

It’s the FACT that by sharing our STORIES, we can actually save a life if we’re able to educate someone to get to the hospital and fight for your own health and the life you share with your family.

All of those stories are IN me now. I KNOW those stories. I KNOW those people. I have my own heartache and my own medical struggles I am still dealing with, but so does everyone else. I’m not special in that regards and I’m not famous by any means, but I CAN do something and I CAN help lend comfort, share knowledge, and yes, save a damn life.

So, this Saturday, when I walk to honor the lives of Kim and my sister Dori, I’ll also walk to celebrate my survival and all of the STORIES we have been told the last 11 years. I feel the stories of everyone I’ve been in contact with. We need to help people understand what a brain aneurysm is. We need to share our brain aneurysm stories.

I hope you’ll join us. Visit MaineBA.org for more event information.

Brain Aneurysm Awareness
Brain Aneurysm Awareness