Bench Warmers

13 years ago this week, my first brain aneurysm roared into my life with an early morning rupture during the busiest and most stressful time of year for me.

I had heard the term before because my cousin in Philadelphia had her un-ruptured brain aneurysm coiled a few years earlier. But I truly didn’t know what it was, nor how serious it could be when the ER doctor told me I had a brain aneurysm. I just remembered thinking it wasn’t a good thing.

After my coiling the next day and the subsequent 21 day stay in the hospital, I had LOTS of time to think about aneurysms and try to learn more. Even after I left the hospital I was very confused about how they were able to get the coils up into my brain from the right side of my groin when the aneurysm was on the left side of my brain. No one drew me a diagram or showed me a graphic…I just didn’t know. And no one in the medical community shared any of that kind of info with me or my boyfriend (now husband).

In rural Maine at that time, there were no resources available for brain aneurysm survivors. Although I wasn’t able to read very well yet, or type very well, I had my laptop with me in the hospital. “Friends” DVD’s really saved me during that time, but I also discovered an online brain aneurysm support group. It wasn’t associated with any foundation or national organization, but there were survivors from all over the world chatting about brain aneurysms. I FINALLY had some questions answered from people who were going through the same things. It was a revelation.

It was there that I met Julie from New Hampshire. She was still recovering from her own rupture three months earlier. She was taken to Maine Medical Center and had the same procedure and doctor as I did. It was so nice to speak to someone who knew the struggles of the 608 neuro ward as well as the fatigue, emotions, and recovery process associated with a ruptured brain aneurysm.

There were men and women of all ages from around the world in this group. Some had more serious issues, which was unsettling when I’m still actually IN the hospital, but it also allowed me to see I was not alone and that there were survivors out there who were many, many years out and thriving. They gave me hope and comfort.

I kept in touch with Julie after I was discharged and we continued to speak online and share our struggles and recovery. When Dave’s niece Kim passed away from a ruptured brain aneurysm and her friends and family created the KAT-Walk in Portland, Julie drove over to attend one of the first events. Her support meant a great deal to me and it was great to meet her in person! Social media apps and cell phone capabilities weren’t as active then as they are now.

We also befriended Lori, another survivor from Florida who was having a very difficult time with a massive brain aneurysm. The three of us met in person for the first time in 2011 in Massachusetts at a brain aneurysm awareness event along the coast. The three of us walked the course, shared survivor stories, laughed a lot, and hoped we’d have another opportunity to see each other again.

Lori, Julie & myself in 2011

Both Julie and Lori have had other medical issues since I met them. Julie has another brain aneurysm that is being monitored and has survived breast cancer. Lori is a walking miracle having endured multiple, highly dangerous brain surgeries and has a brain filled with hardware. Both of these terrific ladies are an inspiration.

Lori was a good resource for me when I had my craniotomy on my 2nd brain aneurysm in 2014. She called to check on me and gave me the best advice about ice being your friend! SO true! Even today, when I’m overtired and feel my face swelling where I had my surgery, I place ice there and always think of Lori. She certainly has had her share of ice.

That same year, Julie and Lori made the journey to Maine for our 6th annual KAT-Walk & Karo-5k for brain aneurysm awareness. I was thrilled they were both coming. Julie helped in the brain aneurysm awareness tent and Lori did the run with her new service dog Tober! It was great to meet her husband Ralph. What a fun couple.

It was a cool day on the Maine coast and sun-lover Lori was very cold! They were all so nice to stay afterwards to help tear down the circus, but since we’re all brain aneurysm survivors….we tire quite easily and silliness ensued! Having a seat on one of the benches along the Back Cove was a nice respite where we could rest, chat, and cuddle to get warm. I don’t know what precipitated the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil photo, but it worked at the moment.

Julie, Lori, Ralph, and Tober joined us for our after-party and the silliness and good times continued. When you meet people you just click with, even if you don’t see them or speak to them that often, it just works. Good, good people.

The after party – 2014

Since 2014, our lives have changed a lot. Some worse, some better, but we’re still thriving and surviving. Julie has come to the walk several more times to support us, even when her husband was struggling with a serious health issue. Lori had plans to join us one year, but a pesky hurricane kept her close to home in Florida. We are no longer members of the online support group, but keep in touch via Facebook.

Thankfully we were all able to get together again this year for the 11th annual KAT-Walk & Karo-5k. As it was five years ago, the weather was chilly and a few showers moved through. Lori dressed appropriately, Ralph wore shorts, silly man! Tober is his usual amazing doggy self. What a good, good service dog.

Ralph did the walk with Tober, Julie helped me out in the brain aneurysm tent and Lori ran/walked the 5-k. She’s amazing.

We decided to recreate our “bench photo” from five years ago to mark the occasion. I’m five years older and about 10 pounds heavier, but we still had a lot of fun.

Then they joined us for the after-party which was filled with laughter and medical stories. Survivors LOVE to share & compare their stories and to give great details – myself included. The great thing about these ladies though, is that there is great empathy for one another. Yes, brain aneurysms brought us together, but we’re now connected in other ways and we respect and care about each other’s families. Now THAT is a support group.

So, as I “celebrate” surviving my ruptured brain aneurysm 13 years ago, I also celebrate finding these two terrific ladies and THANK them for helping me get through my recovery, healing, and living.

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.

The Continuing Adventures of an 11mm Brain Aneurysm

In our last episode of The Adventures of an 11mm Brain Aneurysm, our pesky friend was allowing what appeared to be more blood into the neck of the aneurysm. After 16 platinum coils were inserted in 2006, then four more coils and even a stent were inserted in 2011, blood continues to find its way into the 1/2″ diameter aneurysm that almost cost me my life in 2006.

When we met with Dr. Ecker last year, I made the decision to wait another year and see how things looked. Well, the time to have a look is near.

On March 2nd, I will have an angiogram to see if that area on the neck of the aneurysm has changed or not. It might look the same, or there might be more blood accumulating and action would need to be taken since it is an aneurysm that has already ruptured once.

I’m used to the angiograms. I’ve had so many since 2006. I know many of the radiology folks at Maine Medical Center now. They’re great, but I do wish I didn’t have to see them so frequently.

Balloon Occlusion Test
Balloon Occclusion Test

However, during this year’s angiogram, I will also be given the balloon occlusion test I talked about in last year’s post. They test to see if my arteries can handle reversing the blood flow in that area in case they have to perform a bypass where the parent artery must be sacrificed and the blood flow bypassed for the aneurysm to be effectively treated. I got into a little more detail on last year’s post. Until I know we’ll NEED to do that procedure, I won’t get any more detailed just yet.

The first two steps are to get some pictures of the aneurysm, then see if I can handle the blood flow being cut off to that part of the brain. Sounds scary….and yes, I am scared, but I’d rather have it looked at and know what I have to deal with. It will mean an overnight stay in the hospital which I wasn’t planning on, but if I only have to stay one night, I can handle that.

That pesky, original brain aneurysm continues to taunt me and remind me of the fragility of life and the struggles many, many people have to go through when dealing with brain aneurysms.

Stay tuned for the continuing Adventures of an 11mm Brain Aneurysm!

Kick The Can

Well, after meeting with my neurosurgeon this morning we have decided to kick the can for another year on the blood remnant in my large brain aneurysm. Yes, it’s there, but it doesn’t pose any immediate risk at the moment – they think.

Options currently presented are:

  1. Do nothing and observe with periodic angiograms/MRA’s.
  2. Insert more coils (I have 20 already) into the aneurysm in hopes no more blood gets in.
  3. Block off the affected artery and see if the blood flow reverses.
  4. Place the relatively new Pipeline™ Embolization Device INSIDE the existing stent that was place in the artery in 2011.

Here is how we’re addressing each option:

Watch & Wait: Simply monitor the remnant with periodic angiograms and/or MRA’s. Then if it appears it IS growing and more blood is getting back into the aneurysm, THEN we act. It could do nothing for 10 years, or it could double in size by next year.

More Coils: I already have 20 coils and a stent that is supposed to be blocking blood getting into the brain aneurysm. Obviously, they’re not doing their job as hoped and expected.

Sacrifice the artery where the aneurysm is & reverse blood flow: This procedure will require doing a balloon occlusion test first to determine if my vascular system can handle the blood flow being shut off. IF the balloon test is successful, then I would be a candidate for having that “diseased” part of my artery completely filled with coils and the blood flow would reverse. I’m still trying to understand how it all works.

The Pipeline inserted inside existing stent: The doctor had done some research and this specific procedure has only been done ONCE, at least in the U.S. that he is aware of. Not exactly a glowing recommendation. Even one of the most renowned neurosurgeon’s in the country has shied away from doing it.

It’s pretty safe to say we have ruled out options 2 and 4. Adding more coils doesn’t seem like a more durable option at this point and even though the Pipeline has been used VERY successfully throughout the entire country, including here in Maine by my doctor, the lack of data and positive feedback on inserting one into an existing stent doesn’t bode well for its use in my specific situation. I’d rather not be a test subject unless all other options have been exhausted.

So, we’re going to do a combo of 1 and 3. Well…at least #1 at this point.

Blood Supply To The Brain

I’ll have an angiogram next Spring AND have the balloon occlusion test done at the same time. There are four main arteries supplying blood to your brain. In most people, there are links between these four arteries that allow for one of the arteries to be blocked without significantly affecting the amount of blood reaching the brain. The balloon occlusion test is usually done if there is an abnormality (in my case, an aneurysm) in one of the four main arteries. It is a way to see whether one artery can be temporarily or permanently blocked without significantly affecting the level of blood in your brain. An X-ray and a special dye are used to create images of your arteries and a small balloon, which when inflated will temporarily block your artery. Sounds scary, but if you’re on the table in the hospital already, they simply deflate the balloon if you’re unable to handle it.

The angiogram will allow us to see if the remnant has grown in a year and we’ll have the balloon test done and that will determine, should I NEED to treat the remnant, that blocking the artery and reversing the blood flow is a good option. If I’m unable to handle the test, then that’s another option off the table.

There is another potential, more invasive option, but I’m not even going to go there yet. We’ll wait a year, see if the remnant has gotten any bigger, and DOES need treatment, before we address it further.

So, I’ll continue to eat better, try to get more exercise, and reduce stress……the last one will be the hardest I think. Kick the can….