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.

Plates, Screws, and Dents

I have often referred to the hardware in my brain as my “brain bling”. It’s not a term I came up with myself, but stole from another survivor. I’ve always considered my brain bling to consist of my 16 coils plus 4 more, 1 stent and 1 clip: Basically, metal that is keeping me alive.

The black blob is my 20 coils and there is a stent in there somewhere. The clip on the 2nd aneurysm can be seen to the right.

But wait, there’s more! I keep forgetting I have more metal in my head in the form of the plate and screws used to hold my bone flap in place.

The 20 coils and stent came first, then the clip via a craniotomy came after. A craniotomy is a type of surgery that removes part of the skull (a bone flap) to access the brain underneath. When the procedure is complete, neurosurgeons put the bone back in place and secure it with tiny plates and screws.

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Simulation of the plate and screws securing the bone flap

With my fingers, I can feel the plate and screws under my skin, and at certain angles and lighting they’re very visible sticking out slightly under my skin. The much more visible aspect of most people’s craniotomies is the “dent” or a skull compression that can occur.

The dent is a common occurrence due to the refitting of the bone flap. It is impossible to reattach the bone flap for a snug fit, for any number of reasons. Therefore, a space is created between the two bone surfaces and fitted as closely as possible. The bone is reattached and secured with the plates and screws to ensure very little movement and easy surgical access if it is necessary. However, the piece of bone can shift slightly and create that indentation.

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The dent

They can use synthetic fillers to restore the normal contour around the dent, but I have opted not to have it. It just makes me nervous having something injected around that area. I pretty much try to cover my dent with my hair. I’m not horribly self-conscious about it (if the wind blows my hair up….THERE it is!), it’s just not that attractive. So, as long as I have bangs, why not use them to cover it up, right?

My Actual Brain/Head Bling Count:

  • 1 Titanium Plate

  • 2 Titanium Screws

  • 1 Titanium Clip

  • 1 Stent

  • 20 Platinum Coils

And no, I do not set off the x-ray machine at airports.

Here is a short video clip I took a week after my 2nd brain aneurysm was clipped back in 2014.

It’s Show Time!

Because this is MY blog and I can write whatever I want, allow me to toot my own horn for a wee bit.

For many, many years, we have tried unsuccessfully to reach out to local print & television news outlets for coverage of our organization’s efforts to raise brain aneurysm awareness in the state. We have provided stories to the right people at the right times, but there has never been coverage of our annual KAT-Walk and Karo-5k.

Last summer we FINALLY received some television love after I responded to a local news reporter’s story on Twitter. She immediately responded to my reply and Dave and I ended up hosting the reporter in our home for a short interview and two very short spots on the local news station that evening.

NewsCenter Maine Video 1 — WATCH NOW

NewsCenter Maine Video 2 — WATCH NOW

A few people saw these videos and commented and we have no idea of knowing how many people actually saw the report and subsequent videos on social media, but if one person saw them, listened to what we said, and went to the hospital to get checked, it was worth it. We haven’t heard if anyone came to our KAT-Walk & Karo-5k as a result of watching the story either, but we still want to get the word out there.

When Mira, one of our committee members who lost her 27-year old daughter Karolina to a ruptured brain aneurysm, was trying to solicit sponsorship funds for our walk & 5K last year, she met a Portland, Maine lawyer. Derry Rundlett offered up his services in the form of impersonations of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis at our Dance for Awareness event in March, in exchange for a television appearance on his monthly cable show in Portland.

Derry is 75-years old, full of energy, and was extremely generous with his time and money at the dance. His performances were great fun and fit in perfectly with this year’s Rock n’ Roll theme!

Dave agreed to be on his show some time in April. He asked me to be a part of it as well, so we drove down to Portland, met Derry for lunch, then walked over to the studio to film the 25-30 minute show.

Because Dave and I have spoken to so many groups and organizations about brain aneurysms over the years and how we came to be involved with raising awareness, speaking to Derry came naturally, it was just in front of cameras and in a studio this time. Neither of us were nervous but we certainly wanted to make a good impression, represent our organization well, and raise awareness about brain aneurysms. I think we were successful on all counts.

We had a rough outline of the show, but weren’t aware of exactly what questions Derry would be asking us.

Watch the Derry Rundlett Show about Brain Aneurysms in Maine

WATCH SHOW – approx 25-30 minutes long

Although I have spoken to many people about my own experiences with brain aneurysms as well as about my sister’s death from one, for some reason after this taping I was quite sad and subdued on the drive north back home. Dave and I chatted a little bit, but I really wasn’t in the mood to chat. I have yet to figure out why talking about it on this specific day and in this arena made me sad. I suppose it just “hits me” on some days. I also think because Derry expressed such an interest and appeared to be deeply touched by our stories and our efforts, it rubbed a nerve/emotion that had been resting comfortably for awhile.

And, as usual, I don’t hear much feedback from my friends or co-workers when these shows are brought to their attention, which also depresses me. I need to stop expecting that support. If I stop expecting it, then I won’t be so disappointed when it never comes. You’d think after 12 years I’d learn….oh, well. You can lead a horse to a computer or cell phone, but you can’t make them watch things, right???

Always There

At tonight’s brain aneurym support group meeting, I was reminded of the potential peril I may still be in.

My neurosurgeon/interventional radiologist gave a presentation about new treatments of cervix carotid artery brain aneurysms — aneurysms on the carotid artery in the neck. This was very relevant to one survivor in our group who has a 2nd aneurysm that is being watched right now in that sam area.

This report was originally given to neuro-medical doctors and was quite detailed with highly-medical terminology.  As explicit as it was, one was able to get the gist of it: they’re doing some pretty amazing things these days and saving lives.

The report was also funded by a research grant sponsored by our Maine Brain Aneurysm Awareness Committe, and Dr. Ecker explained how the money we gave was being used to purchase the detailed imagery needed for this paper. We are thrilled to be able to do it.

This presentation was about 30 minutes interspersed with questions from our group and Dr. Ecker giving us great explanations. Then a second, 10-15 minute presentation was given regarding his use of the pipeline procedure which is saving many, many lives and used more and more. I only wish it could be used with my case.

It was humbling of Dr. Ecker to admit that there are some aneurysms that are just trouble makers and that they can only do so much in some cases. Meaning, they’re still only human and one of their biggest challenges is the interaction between metallic fixtures and human biology with in the brain.

Some people just have such funky arteries due to vascular disease that the doctors can try and try to do everything they feel is right but due to the physical makeup of their arteries, it’s a challenge. I’m pretty sure I’m one of those challenges with my larger1st aneurysm.

Dr. Kwan, my doctor at the time in 2006, did the best he could at that time to fix my 1/2″ diameter brain aneurysm and save my life.  It worked…for five years until the 16 platinum coils inserted into the aneurysm started to compact and blood started to get back into the aneurysm.

Enter Dr. Ecker and the stent and four additional coils he added to my metal repertoire. This procedure went very well and everything looked great. Until more blood started getting into the neck of the aneurysm again and we are now watching it.

Because I already have a stent in that artery directing blood flow past the neck of the aneurysm, it’s highly unlikely and not recommended that using the pipeline will, or CAN be used to keep blood from getting back into the aneurysm.  And the research and reported procedures on putting a stent inside of another stent with similar conditions is non-existent. Hence…more waiting.

In the meantime, I live my life one day at the time hoping more blood isn’t getting into the neck and forming a bulge there that may, or may not rupture. I don’t have high blood pressure, I have never smoked, but I do have a highly stressful job for about 3-4 months of the year and I am not eating that great or exercising. From what I see, even if you ARE in great shape…if your arteries are “funky”, they’ll do what the want to – aneurysms really don’t discriminate.

Dr. Ecker and I have previously discussed options and they’re quite limited at the moment, but seeing the groundbreaking procedures that are being done in our very own state is giving me hope that a solution is in sight. I’d prefer NOT to be one of those challenges, but my arteries have other ideas.

I don’t think about it everyday, but certainly after a session like this, it’s the topmost thing on my mind and knowing there are doctors and a great staff here in the state of Maine is a comfort. I KNOW they’ll do their best and I KNOW they’ll give me the best advice and recommendations at their disposal. We are blessed to have such talented doctors in our state who are taking such good care of us. THANK YOU!