Chapter 1 – Brain Attack
No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow. ~Euripides
A flaming sword slashed into my left temple. I thought, Wow! Where did that come from? If this pain doesn’t stop, I don’t know if I’ll be able to serve on a jury. As soon as I had completed the thought there was only blackness – no more thoughts, no feelings, just nothingness. My body jerked and writhed in grand mal seizures caused by blood flowing into the space between my skull and my brain as the result of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.
Serendipity and synchronicity were at work that morning. The lady sitting next to me was a nurse. She immediately started caring for me and yelled, “Somebody call 9-1-1!”
It wasn’t the first miracle in my life. My congenital aneurysm could have ruptured on any given day. I had twice given birth, but the strain of labor and delivery hadn’t caused it to pop. The jolting car wreck I was in years before left my neck stiff and sore, but didn’t cause my brain to bleed. It was a miracle that I was summoned for jury duty that day because it meant I had to be in downtown St. Charles early in the morning. Afraid of being late for the court appearance I arrived quite early, so I was sitting on a bench instead of driving my car when the rupture occurred. If I’d been following my usual Monday routine, I would have been driving in traffic on Interstate 70. I might have caused a huge wreck, taking innocent lives in the process. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I was sitting at the courthouse just a few blocks away from St. Joseph’s Hospital when the rupture occurred. An invisible protector was watching over me. If I had to have a brain attack, I was certainly in a fortuitous place to have it.
There is no memory of the ambulance ride. Was it there or in the ER where I was assaulted by bright lights while medical professionals shared information about my condition in staccato bursts of medical-speak? Most of what I heard I could not grasp. The words “…get her stabilized,” invaded my awareness, prompting me to fight harder, trying to wake up. Then it was back to the blackness. For how long, I don’t know.
Somewhere in that void my brain managed another thought. It may have been a prayer or a bargain with God; I know you did not bless me with a grandbaby just to take my life. I know you want me to stay around to help raise her. My first grandchild had been born mid-June and I wasn’t ready to leave her behind just yet. As soon as the thought processed through my brain, I experienced ultimate bliss. All was right in the world. In that nanosecond of enlightenment I knew that the human spirit survives the death of the physical body and I understood that my wandering soul needed to get back into its earthly habitat. With the force of a downed fighter plane barreling into the earth, my mind, body and spirit reconnected with a startling and violent crash and I returned to the serene void that had become my safe haven.
My next encounter with lucidity was when I awoke and found myself looking up at the drained, terrified face of my husband, Mike. “Jan,” he ventured, his brow wrinkled in worry and his face pale with poorly-masked fear, “this is Dr. Martin. He’s been taking care of you.”
Dr. Martin’s face displayed a mixture of concern, confidence and compassion. It was the demeanor of a man bearing bad news that he was reluctant to deliver. I knew immediately that the situation was dire. He cleared his throat. “We need to talk about what happened to you and where we go from here,” he said. “You’ve had an aneurysm burst in your brain, causing you to have a stroke. We have you stabilized for now, but without further treatment you will die.” His voice cracked as he delivered the last three words.
“What kind of treatment?” I mumbled.
“What I propose is a surgical procedure to clip the aneurysm,” Dr. Martin continued, his professional demeanor softening the harshly clinical nature of his words. “We will remove a small section of your skull and set it aside. Then we will isolate the aneurysm and place a clip at its base to stop the bleeding and seal off the aneurysm from the artery. Over time, the aneurysm will wither. Once the clip is in place, we will replace the skull section and close the incision.”
I recall asking, “How do you put my skull back together?” Although I remember him answering, my brain must have stored that bit of information in a bad sector. I can’t retrieve it.
“I must warn you there is no guarantee that the surgery will be successful.” He paused a moment before adding the grim conclusion. “In fact, there is a possibility you could die during the procedure or that the operation could cause additional damage and result in severe disability.”
“What kind of odds do I have?”
“With the surgery, you have about a 20% chance of making a full recovery.” His calm voice made the number sound quite optimistic.
“And without the surgery?”
“Your condition is very serious,” he began. He paused to clear his throat, and then continued, “There is a very high risk for additional bleeding. Unless we clip the aneurysm you will die. The only question is how soon.” He lowered his glance making it clear how much he disliked delivering the prognosis.
I searched my husband’s eyes and said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “I like 20% a lot better than 0%. I think we have to go for the surgery.” Mike nodded his concurrence, his eyes begging me to fight for my life.
Dr. Martin proved to be another of my miracles. On that particular day, he arrived early at his office in the medical building adjacent to the hospital. That was definitely my good fortune because the man is nothing less than a genius. Serendipity and synchronicity placed him exactly where I needed him to be when I needed him to be there to save my life.
Once I managed to sign the surgical consent forms, Dr. Martin explained to us that the first step would be to take me in for a four-quadrant angiogram. This procedure involved shooting dye into one section of my brain at a time and doing a CAT scan of each area to get a better look at the bleeding aneurysm and to find out if others like it lay in wait to launch subsequent attacks.
“I can’t have an MRI,” I insisted. “There are titanium plates and screws in my left leg from a double spiral fracture.” Ever the good patient, I regurgitated the instructions my orthopedic surgeon had given nine months prior.
“That won’t be a problem.” I heard kindness in Dr. Martin’s voice…kindness and calm reassurance. I knew I was in good hands. That dark serenity enveloped me again.
This is as good a place as any to note there is a lot I don’t remember at all. I don’t know with any certainty whether I returned to my haven of bliss because I lost consciousness, because I was receiving medications, or because I was a hairbreadth away from permanently vacating my body. It’s likely I am simply incapable of remembering. Blood in the brain will do that to a person.
NORMAL is currently available in eBook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, eBookPie, Kobo, and Copia. A paperback edition is in the works. A portion of the proceeds from sale of this book are donated to The Brain Aneurysm Foundation to help fund patient support and research focused on early detection of aneurysms and prevention of ruptures. Every 18 minutes an aneurysm ruptures in somebody’s brain. Each year approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. alone fall victim.