The day my brain broke
I was taking a bath on a Sunday afternoon when it happened. I was at the point in the bath that all women (and some men) know – I had finished shampooing, washing and shaving and had put conditioner on my hair. This is the time when we lay back and enjoy the hot soak as the conditioner is working its magic…. when, suddenly, I became disoriented. It was a dizzy kind of feeling, although I wasn’t standing up. Everything seemed fuzzy.
I blinked and rubbed my eyes in an attempt to bring the world back into focus, but to no avail. The disoriented feeling continued. I remember looking at the bathroom door and thinking that I wasn’t seeing properly. I rubbed my eyes again and squeezed them closed tightly, thinking surely, the strange feeling would pass. It didn’t
I told myself, “Something is going wrong in your brain – you’re having a stroke or a seizure or something.” I don’t know how I knew that, but I did.
My next thought was that I needed to get out of the tub. I remember thinking, “the statistics are really high for people dying in the bathtub. If you don’t die from this stroke, you’ll drown in the bathtub.” I then had images of my family and friends finding me pickled in the tub and decided that wasn’t how I wanted to go. But, getting out of the tub proved harder than I expected.
I remember trying to stand up and putting my wait on my forearm to push myself out of the tub and feeling as if the muscles in my arm were jumping. As I perceived it, the muscles in my arms were visibly trembling, and I could see it. I was aware and witnessing it. At this point, I knew I was in deep trouble. My body wasn’t responding to my brain and my body was acting without my brain’s consent. I knew that meant something was seriously wrong.
I pulled the plug out of the drain because I thought, “if I can’t get out of the tub, at least I won’t drown if there’s no water in it.”
I sat back and tried to gather my thoughts that were darting around like hungry birds at a feeder bringing all types of medical info in snippets to my brain, that was, somehow, still consciously aware and rational. I surmised that my muscles were jumping because I was having a seizure, but I couldn’t understand why I would have a seizure. I had no known medical conditions, not even high blood pressure or cholesterol. I have no family history of seizures.
I brushed away all the competing information, and thought, “I don’t know why or how, if it’s a seizure or stroke, but it’s your brain. You’ve got to get out of this tub.”
I then, carefully but quickly, planned my strategy for getting out of the tub and getting help: I would grab the towel beside the bathtub (that was now empty), wrap it around myself, then pull myself out of the tub while steadying myself on the tall, wicker laundry basket. From there I’d go directly to the couch where the phone was and call for help.
Until then, I was calm; it was a weird, eerie sort of calm that comes over me when an emergency happens. I planned, I strategized. I didn’t hurry. I thought, and I acted. I think it was my fight or flight response. But, suddenly, as I put my plan into action, wrapped the towel around me and began to stand up, my leg gave out on me, and I stumbled forward and caught myself on the clothes hamper. I slid back down to the bathroom floor, now, at least, out of the tub.
I thought, “Ok, this is the moment. You are going to die. You know everyone dies, and this is your time.” I felt a surge of fear that is hard to describe. It was panic. Disappointment washed over me, and I thought, “I didn’t think it would be today. I’m only 47.” My conscious mind, my inner voice, was still working, and asked, “Why are you afraid? You believe. You know you will go on. You can see Abby again…”
I took a deep breath and thought, “ok, if this is my time then I need my God and my daughter, Abby,” who had died in a horrid car accident seven years earlier at the age of 15.
I called out to them… maybe, audibly, I’m not sure, and I heard nothing back. I didn’t feel anything spiritual that I recall, and that made me more afraid. I thought, “Oh my Lord, this is my time and You are not here. You said you would always be with me…and, Abby, Abby… where are you…. But, I heard nothing.
Then, I asked myself, “Are you ready?” and I thought of my son, Wesley. We had recently had one of the worst fights of our lives. We hadn’t spoken in days which had never happened since his birth nearly 30 years earlier. Another surge of fear came over me, and I shook my head and said to myself, “No, I’m not ready. I can’t leave him here all alone. If I die, he will have lost us both, me and Abby. I thought of the guilt he would feel over the harsh words said in anger – especially if they were the last. “No,” I said to myself. “I’m not ready. I have to, at least, talk to him again.”
I somehow mustered the wherewithal to stagger and slide and fall my way out of the bathroom and into the living room and get to my phone. I noted, thankfully, that my dogs were crated because I knew I was going to have to call 911. They are large boxer-pit bull mixes that scare most people. I was glad I didn’t have to deal with trying to round them up and crate them or, worse yet, have them loose when emergency personnel came in the house. That’s when I remembered the door was locked.
I quickly texted my friend, John Roby, who is the fire chief at Banks District Fire Department on the off chance that he would receive the text. I think I texted, “Come quick. I’m having a stroke or seizure or something.” I added a second text, “I’m serious.” It’s all I could manage. Then I made myself stagger the few steps to the front door to unlock it. This time, I kept the phone in my hand. I knew it was my lifeline, and I didn’t know how much longer I had. I made it back to the couch safely, but my head hurt so badly I could hardly think.
I looked at my phone and, thankfully, John had texted back: “two miles out on motorcycle. Be right there.” I was so relieved.
I laid back on the couch, still in a towel, but covered, and thought again of Wes. I texted him: “I love you,” then, “I’m having a siixlduma.” I knew I wasn’t able to text any longer… I couldn’t make my fingers do what I wanted. I was glad I had the chance to say, I love you. If I died, Wes would be able to see that, even if it was after the fact. He would know.
My head was throbbing, and my mind was racing. My panicked mind went back to calling out to God and Abby earlier and feeling nothing. I closed my eyes, feeling disheartened, scared and confused as to why I couldn’t feel anything spiritual at such a low point.
I, suddenly and inexplicably, remembered the last line of the poem, Footprints, in which God says, “that was when I was carrying you.” I felt my daughter’s presence and was comforted.
For anyone who doesn’t know the famous poem, it is about a person having a dream about himself and God walking along a beach. Looking back over his life, he sees that during the most difficult periods, there was only one set of footprints in the sand, and he asks God why. God replies, “That was when I was carrying you.
John and his son, JT, arrived minutes later and assessed my condition. John dressed me, gathered my meds and called for an ambulance. He said I wasn’t showing signs of a stroke and that my vitals were good, but we both knew something was seriously wrong.
After they arrived, I started sweating profusely and vomited without warning. I could tell he was worried, although he hid it well. He mumbled to himself, “sweating profusely, vomiting…. Heart rate is ok, pulse ox is good…” I looked at him and said, “It’s my brain. Something is wrong with my brain.” Then I suddenly, out of nowhere, got an excruciating pain behind my right eye that made me cry out. John remained calm, but emphatically asked me where the pain was, exactly.
Minutes later, what seemed like 10 firefighters and emts showed up at my house. The paramedic talked to John and assessed me again. She said my pupils were equal and reactive, which was a good sign, but I heard she and John mumble something about “sudden onset headache…” I knew it was stroke lingo. I’d been through it with both of my parents.
I remember the odd feeling of seeing my property and trees from a horizontal position as they carried me to the ambulance on a back board. Even in pain, I thought it was pretty cool to see life from that angle.
As they put me in the ambulance, John said he and JT would see me later, that the paramedics would take good care of me. I asked him to ride with me to the hospital, and he obliged. I don’t even know how JT got home. I remember that I mentioned how bumpy my driveway felt in the ambulance, and everyone laughed and said, “that they needed to get better shocks.”
I remember John telling the drivers to tell the ER docs that he insisted on a head CT. “I know this stubborn @$%&,” he said. “She would never have had me call an ambulance if something wasn’t really wrong.”
The next thing I know, I was at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and Dr. Jaime Miller, another old friend, was looking down at me as I laid on the gurney. I was glad to see his familiar face, and I trusted him as a doctor. He had taken care of both of my parents when they had strokes in the previous two years. I knew he knew what he was doing.
Things got a bit fuzzy at this point. I believe they gave me morphine in the ambulance, so I was fading in and out, or maybe, I was losing consciousness. I remember hearing snips of conversations. Sometimes I would interject something in the conversation. Sometimes, I wouldn’t. I remember telling Jaime that I was in my happy place. I was alright. I was conscious. I was just in my happy place.
Maybe it was the drugs… but, as I remember, I was tucked into a deep meditative state wrapped up tight with my daughter’s spirit like a cocoon… that was my happy place, and I liked it there.
I woke up a few times and saw my family. My son was there and my mom, dad and sister. I was so relieved to see Wes. I thought, “If I die in a few minutes, I’ll still get to see him and say, I love you” one more time.
I was glad to see my mom and sister, and shocked to see my 86-year-old father. It had always been me sitting on the chair and him on the hospital bed. I was supposed to be the nurse. He looked at me, with tears in his eyes and said, “I love you.” That’s when I knew I was in bad shape. My dad just doesn’t say that. He shows his love in many ways, but he doesn’t say the words. And, he doesn’t cry.
Once my family was there, I became quite calm again. I felt like I could say my I love yous and get my affairs in order. I told Wes where my will was and how to get it notarized, etc.
The next thing I know, Jaime Miller was standing over my bed again. He was telling my family, “Well, it’s not good. She has bleeding in her brain.” I remember hearing the words and then realizing it was Jaime, and saying, “Oh, hello,” to him, like I just ran into him at the grocery store. I remember that he seemed amused by that. I remember comprehending what bleeding in the brain meant and closing my eyes again in resignation… going back to my happy place.
I was right. It was my brain, but it was worse than a stroke. It was a ruptured brain aneurysm. The prognosis wasn’t good.
Jaime said they would normally fly me to Morgantown, but the current rainy, cloudy weather wouldn’t allow for flights, so they would send me to Ruby Memorial by ambulance.
The next thing I knew, I was back in an ambulance, talking with paramedics.
I don’t remember arriving at Ruby, but I remember talking with a kind doctor in a wheel chair that explained to me that I had a ruptured aneurysm and that they needed to do surgery to repair it. He explained that they would insert a catheter into my femoral artery and perform surgery on my brain to stop the bleeding by placing coils in the aneurysm.
When he finished explaining, he asked if I had any questions. I said, “yes, lots… like what are the chances I’ll live through this?” He replied, “a lot greater than if you didn’t have the surgery.”
I asked, “so will you have to shave my whole head or just a section.” He replied, “No, we won’t even touch your head. The whole procedure will be done through the catheter in your thigh.” It all happened so quickly, that I don’t even know that doctor’s name.
I consented to the surgery, signed some papers, and several hours later, I woke up to doctor’s standing around me and my son standing at the end of my bed. A doctor pointed to my son and asked me if I knew who he was. I smiled and said, excitedly, “that’s bubby.” The doctor seemed happy with my response, but Wes was explaining that “bubby” was a nickname that I and Abby had given him. I tried to explain it to the doctor, but my mouth was so dry it was hard to speak… eventually, I sputtered out, through parched lips, “aka (also known as) Wesley Woody.” Everyone smiled really big at that statement. I guess they realized I had my wits about me.
Next, they went to my feet and poked them to make sure I had feeling in my feet, and I passed that test as well. I remember, the doctors looking exuberant and my family looking relieved.
I told the doctor my head hurt very badly, and he laughed, and said, “I bet it does.”
I somehow thought the surgery would ease the pain; it didn’t.
He explained that it would take time for the blood in my brain to reabsorb back into my body and, as long as the blood was there, I would continue to have pain.
“The pain means you’re alive,” he said with jubilation. He was right. I was alive… and I was in a lot of pain. I think I, promptly, vomited after he said that.
The next few weeks were spent in the stroke unit having a neurological exam every hour (24 hours a day) – “squeeze my hands, what’s your name, who is the president, flex your feet, we’re going to shine a light in your eyes…” Yes, they did this even at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., etc.
Cat Scans were performed every day at 4 a.m. – yes, a.m. – I don’t know why. Eventually, I nearly slept through them. They took me, bed and all, to the Cat Scan room, and scooted my head into a tube. At that point, I didn’t care about anything but sleep.
A 45- minute-sonogram of my brain was performed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon. I came to view it as a long massage that, unfortunately, left goo in my hair.
I wasn’t allowed to have any pain medication stronger than Tylenol because it could cause me to be sleepy and non-responsive during the neurological evaluations which could mask the symptoms of a blood clot, stroke or another aneurysm.
I was hooked up to so many machines that I couldn’t move which resulted in three months of physical therapy to correct back problems unrelated to the aneurysm.
It was hard; it was painful, but I was alive.
The conditioner that I had lathered into my hair, just before the aneurysm ruptured, would stay there for several days until I was able to get a shower. It wasn’t pretty, but I still had hair.
At some point, I found out that the procedure that I underwent was part of a clinical trial – and, apparently, a good one. I remember signing the consent forms. I just don’t remember the part about it being a clinical trial.
During that time, I had a steady stream of company. My 77-year-old mother stayed with me for the first several nights and slept in a chair. My son, my father and my friends visited regularly, staying late into the evening, beyond visiting hours. My friend, Amy Tenney, kept constant vigil over my pets which allowed me to have peace of mind. I don’t know what I would have done if I thought my animals weren’t being properly cared for. Teresa Woody, Amy Summerfield and Selena Lamb made sure my home was spotless before I was discharged… and even decorated my house for fall.
I just passed the six-month anniversary of the ruptured aneurysm. I return to Ruby to have an MRA (an MRI of my brain with contrast dye) to check the old aneurysm and look for any new ones. Miraculously, the aneurysm was not only completely resolved, but there was, not even, a residual tail or neck, as the doctor’s call it. The neurosurgeon, Dr. Marsh, was so impressed by the results he said that I didn’t need another follow up in six months…. Or ever, if I wasn’t having problems. I couldn’t believe my ears when he said that.
Reliable statistics on life expectancy following a ruptured aneurysm are hard to find because, as one of my doctor’s said, many ruptured aneurysms are only discovered at autopsy or they are left undiagnosed because an autopsy isn’t performed. The medical community cannot state with assertion what causes an aneurysm to form. There is a possibility that some people are born with an aneurysm; there is also a chance people develop aneurysms over their lifetime. There are still many unknowns. The brain, like life, is a mystery.
According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, approximately, 40 percent of ruptured brain aneurysms, nearly immediately, result in death. Of those who survive, 66 percent suffer some permanent neurological deficit.
My neurologists tell me that my risk of having another ruptured aneurysm is nearly double that of a healthy person.
I have no deficits. That’s right; I have zero neurological deficits. I never lost capacity for speech, mobility or any other cognitive function, including memory.
I thank medical science and prompt emergency response; I received the best care in the world, right here in West Virginia. I thank my own mind and body for helping me make it through. I thank my family and friends for supporting me through one of the most difficult times in my life. And, I know… it was then that He carried me.