Surviving aneurysms requires luck and love
June 25, 2021
Do bad things really happen in threes? This was definitely my third bad Memorial Day. On May 31, I had just traveled home with my mom from visiting family in Illinois, about a seven-hour drive. It was a beautiful afternoon and since I had been sitting all day, I decided to wash my car.
This was no surprise to my husband, Sean. He knows my mind is constantly processing what I can accomplish next. Plus, I am self-diagnosed with a "little" obsessive compulsive disorder and living on a dirt road means my car never stays clean. He happily got the pressure washer all setup.
Pressure washing provides instant gratification to a clean freak like me. I started with the interior rubber mats and made it about halfway around my dirty car when suddenly it felt like that washer pressure had traveled from my hand to inside my head.
I am a fainter and I have learned to listen to my body. I lowered myself onto those wet rubber floor mats and screamed my loudest for help. Luckily, the windows were open and Sean and my youngest son, Keagan, heard me. I remember my wet clothes, the worst headache of my entire life and telling them I thought I would be fine.
I remember how they disagreed. "This isn't normal," Sean said. Keagan said "we need to get this checked out."
They lovingly loaded me into the truck and supplied me with a towel, water bottle and bucket. I held my head tight, vomiting water. I couldn't open my eyes because the bright light made everything worse. I was nagging at Sean to "slow down a little" as he sped the 3.7 miles to the Community Memorial Hospital emergency room.
I remember telling him I could not walk in and I was placed into a wheelchair. I kept my eyes closed and clenched my head.
I remember the nurse asking if I had been eating or drinking and answering "yes."
I remember her yelling, "She needs a CT now."
I remember being told to lay very still during the computerized tomography scan. I remember Dr. Fey examining my eyes with a bright light and the compassion in his voice when he told me the scan showed a bleeding brain aneurysm.
I remember him assuring me that he was going to make some calls and determine the best place to send me. I remember telling my husband who he needed to start calling and other random thoughts of panic. Death crossed my mind and I actually reminded Sean of my cremation wishes.
Who does that?
Those before me
I remember praying and begging God to save me and telling him I still had more I needed to do. I never saw "the light" or any of my loved ones that have died. I remember feeling worried about my mom since my dad died less than a year ago.
I remember thinking this could not be it. My kids still need me (Brady, 20; Sydney, 19; Keagan, 15) and I want to be a grandma someday. Sean and I have more traveling to do and just started enjoying our new home. I wanted to get back there. Besides, I promised my dad I would be there for my mom and told my grandma I would live to be 100 for her, which meant I still needed 50 more years.
I do not remember trying to comfort my children or apologizing that they had to see me in so much pain. I never saw the faces of the paramedics in the ambulance from CMH to the Cloquet Airport. I remember the bumpy road construction as they sped up Big Lake Road to meet the air ambulance. I don't remember my helicopter ride, my arrival at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, my first night in the intensive care unit, my husband of 30 years refusing to leave my side, my mom and kids being allowed to take turns seeing me in the ICU or asking my husband to call my brother so I could hear his voice.
At 8 a.m. on June 1, they repaired my 11-millimeter cerebral aneurysm by performing a coil embolization via an angiogram. I remember them telling me it was going to be a long day. I remember the neurosurgery team outside my room and hearing that I wasn't "out of the woods yet" but was "one of the lucky ones."
Getting "out of the woods" required 14 days of progress. I eagerly accepted the challenge.
By June 4, I was able to transfer from the ICU to a private neurosurgery room that had its own shower. All my daily exams, labs, and head ultrasounds were looking good. I passed the tests from speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. I even earned a $50 Target gift card for participating in a research study that only required 3.5 tablespoons of my blood. I was walking, talking, watching TV, shopping online, getting caught up on social media, party planning, making to-do lists, writing and truly enjoying my hospital meals.
Unfortunately, the next two days, my headaches were unbearable and I was terrified. I had another scan and it looked good. The steroids were not controlling the pain and Oxycodone gave zero relief. They tried an IV migraine medicine that wiped out the headache but made me feel like I was in a virtual straitjacket. They increased the steroids and Tylenol and I identified my pre-aneurysm headache triggers: lack of caffeine and seasonal allergies. I had not had a cup of coffee, a Diet Coke or a Zyrtec in five days. I incorporated each into the next day and it worked. I still had headaches, but they were tolerable.
End of the tunnel
On June 10, Dr. Quinn called Sean and indicated I was a "poster child" for a neurosurgery conference.
On June 12, I finally walked outside.
On June 14, I had my second angiogram and stent placement. It was ssupposed to only take 45 minutes, but there was a surprise. They discovered a small second, hidden aneurysm, which also required a stent. (Science and technology are so amazing.) Since I have fun with names, I decided to name both aneurysms. I named my initial 11 mm posterior communicating aneurysm "Anya," which means resurrection; He (God) has favored me. I named the hidden 2 mm anterior choroidal aneurysm "Aisha," One who is alive.
Some 5 to 8 percent of the population are unknowingly walking around with a brain aneurysm. It never entered my mind that I was one of them. I was told one-third do not survive, one-third are never the same, and one-third make it. My heart hurts for those that did not get my outcome.
My only known risk factor included being an adult woman. A sudden, severe headache is the key symptom of a ruptured aneurysm. Other symptoms can include nausea or vomiting, stiff neck, blurred or double vision, sensitivity to light, seizure, a drooping eyelid, loss of consciousness and confusion.
I guess bad things can really happen in threes, but in my case it was not the end of my story. I survived two different types of brain aneurysms, which is miraculous. I was officially discharged from HCMC on June 15 with follow-up in one month. I will have another angiogram in six months.
What do I need? Time to rest, heal, regain my strength and cope with a near-death experience. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult this was for my family or for those who received the call. Please give them a hug, handshake or pat on the back next time you see them. I am well insured, rarely take sick time and planned for "what could happen."
I cannot tell you how good it feels to be home.
Jenn Hall offers some life hack suggestions after surviving two brain aneurysms:
• Make a donation in my honor to Community Memorial Hospital, Cloquet Area Fire District, the Cloquet Educational Foundation, Zion Lutheran Church, the Pine Knot News, or Hennepin County Medical Center. I will cheer each time I see one.
• Get vaccinated for Covid-19 and get your annual flu shot to protect our health care workers and allow patients in hospitals to have visitors. I cannot fathom what 15 days in the hospital would have felt like during a pandemic or without seeing my family.
• Support Community Memorial Hospital and the Cloquet Area Fire District so they can continue to recruit and train the right health care team members for our community. I am alive today because they did everything right and got me to HCMC in time.
• Invest in our youth and school district so we continue to produce future scientists and health care providers. I am a proud 1989 Cloquet graduate.
• Recognize my heroes: Sean and Keagan Hall, Dr. Fey and the CMH ER team, CAFD, air ambulance, my neurosurgeons Dr. Bharathi Jagadeesan and Dr. Coridon Quinn, the HCMC neurosurgery team, providers and employees and my guardian angels (dad Randy Backe, uncle Jim Backe, uncle Rick Sather, and my grandparents).
• Take care of your health. What small changes can you make to improve your health?
• Listen to your body and seek prompt medical attention when something doesn’t feel right. Do not say you are “fine.”
• Support your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and community members. Prayers, calls, texts, emails, cards, cultural practices, flowers and gifts can brighten any day.
• Spend more time with those you love. There may never be another next time. Resolve broken relationships whenever possible.
• Make the best of bad situations. Every person I encountered was part of my success.
• Reduce pet peeves. Stop littering and pick up trash. Clean up after your pets and stop tossing cigarette butts. Follow my Uncle Jim’s motto and “leave it better than you found it.”
• Actor Emilia Clarke also had two brain aneurysms. She started SameYou, which aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke. I am looking forward to binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”