The odds of surviving a ruptured aneurysm are about the same as winning a coin toss. The odds of surviving 13 aneurysms are like winning the life lottery.
“Statistically, I was as good as gone,” says Barbara Ladd McNamara, who was diagnosed with 13 cerebral aneurysms in July of 2007 after one of them ruptured. “When I was in the hospital, I could hear my oldest daughter and husband discussing funeral plans and I remember wondering, ‘Who died?’”
Barbara was fortunate to receive life-saving care at the National Brain Aneurysm Center (NBAC) at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, one of the top brain aneurysm centers in the country.
“Had I been taken into surgery at any other hospital, I firmly believe the doctors would have been tempted to shut down the equipment with a brusque ‘Nothing we can do. Just make her comfortable.’ Not at St. Joe’s. Those doctors and nurses saved my life,” Barbara says.
“There are almost no centers like ours anywhere,” explains Dr. Eric Nussbaum, chair of the NBAC. “Many large academic medical centers take care of patients with neurovascular problems as part of their program, but few have a dedicated focus on aneurysms and the blood vessels of the brain.”
Dr. Nussbaum describes an aneurysm as an area of weakness in the wall of an artery that brings blood supply to the brain. Eventually, the area of weakness can bulge out over time like an inflated balloon, and the wall can become so thin that it bursts, leaking blood from the artery into the space around the brain. About one in 20 people will have an aneurysm; most people won’t know they have one until it bursts.
Barbara’s aneurysm “blew up” when she was eating dinner with her husband and teenage son. She says it felt like a lightning bolt cracked in her head. Shortly afterward, she collapsed. She was taken by ambulance to St. John’s, stabilized, then transferred to St. Joe’s neurointensive care unit to stop the bleeding in her brain.
Once at St. Joe’s, the surgical team counted and recounted the cluster of aneurysms depicted in her medical imaging. It’s common to see two or three aneurysms in a patient, less common to see four to six. But 13?
“Her case was extreme, even for us,” says Dr. Nussbaum.
The doctors determined that Barbara was born with thin-walled arteries. She probably had one or two aneurysms as a child and created more as she aged. In retrospect, she says she had headaches, hot flashes, mild fatigue, and a slight vision change, but nothing that couldn’t be explained as part of her busy lifestyle and “getting older.” What did put her at risk was her medical history—her dad died of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm and both grandfathers had brain bleeds.
“People must know what their medical history means so they can be better advocates for themselves,” Barbara stresses.
After four weeks in the hospital, three procedures, and a never-ending supply of patience, humor, faith, and trust, Barbara says she feels better today than she has in 20 years. She even went on a Caribbean cruise last winter to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary.
Dr. Nussbaum says Barbara’s courageous recovery was influenced by her positive and upbeat attitude. She smiled through the pain. Her optimistic outlook on life was contagious.
“Every day I look out into my garden, or I see a bird, or I see my dog chasing a ball, I take that heartbeat of a second and I think ‘Isn’t this a wonderful, wonderful place. We are so lucky to be here.’”
Barbara’s unique case—and the fact that she is back to doing all the things she loved to do before her diagnosis—made her a perfect candidate for HealthEast’s “Courage Girl” campaign. She can be seen ‘flying’ on the sides of city buses, relaying her message on public television, and starring in a 10-minute documentary film on www.couragegirlmovie.com. The film was unveiled this fall at the grand opening of the newly completed five-story patient tower expansion at St. Joseph’s hospital. The tower expansion features more private rooms for patients; Centralized Heart Care and Neuroscience Centers; four new operating rooms with specialized technology; a new main entrance, lobby and chapel; and a 3M Education Center.
Being recognized as HealthEast’s Courage Girl is a “hoot,” Barbara says, but the message is a very serious one. You don’t have to die of an aneurysm or stroke if you are able to get to the right place at the right time. “The old way of thinking is that aneurysms are always deadly and that, if you survive, you should have low recovery expectations,” comments Dr. Nussbaum. “Barbara and many of our other patients are helping turn that thinking on its head.”