Posted by: paulbassler | January 18, 2013

Surviving a Burst Brain Aneurysm

May 13, 2008, a day that will live in infamy…at least for me. That was the day I found my wife of 35 years laying on the floor of our bathroom, looking up at me with a bewildered look on her face. Little did I know that from that day forward life would never be the same.

After a call for an ambulance, rush to the hospital, and a couple of hours of agonizing uncertainty, I learned my wife suffered a burst brain aneurysm and blood was filling her skull. The emergency room doctor gave her little hope to survive, but told me if she is to survive, I would have to get her to the US mainland or the Philippines for emergency treatment (we lived on the island of Guam). The doctor gave me three choices. I could fly her to California, but she has to be stable to be accepted by the airline and she may die before she could be stabilized.  I could fly her to the Philippines via commercial airline, but she had to be able to sit in a chair, which she could not being she was unconscious. Finally, we could take an air ambulance to Manila, at a cost of $37,000 for a three hour flight. That was the first of many tough decisions to come. Though we did not have $37,000, I was able to empty our bank accounts and use my brother’s credit cards to hire the air ambulance. Within four hours we took off for the Philippines.

For those who may be going through a similar experience and you are like me, your mind is full of unanswered questions and your heart is broken. Is my loved one going to survive? What is a brain aneurysm and what caused it to burst? If she survives, what permanent damage might there be? Can she completely recover from something like this? I had so many questions and got very few answers. What I would have loved to have then was someone who had gone through this and could share with me what happened to them and what I might expect. I got on line and found very little, though I found some organizations with folks who had similar experiences. It was helpful but more general by nature and I was looking for more definitive specific expectations. When it comes to brain damage, I came to learn, there really are no definitive expectations.

The surgeon who performed the brain surgery on my wife, tying off the ruptured aneurysm, had 25 years of experience. Though he said he was successful in tying off the aneurysm and removing as much blood as possible, he was unable to tell me to what degree she would recover. I remember just how important the word “recovery” meant to me at the time. The surgeon shared the results of many of his past patients, which ranged from fully recovered to those left in a vegetative state. Based on what he saw in my wife’s brain during surgery, he believed she would suffer some brain damage, but it would not be completely debilitating. He couldn’t say for sure, but he was optimistic some of her physical capabilities would return and her mental capabilities only slightly impacted.

Days went by very slowly then. Throughout the process, I couldn’t stop imagining what life will be like for me and my wife a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. It wasn’t a helpful endeavor, as I seemed to imagine the worst most of the time. What did help was sending our friends and family daily updates of my wife’s progress via email. It not only provided our family and friends much desired information, it gave me an outlet for my emotions and frustrations.

My wife remained in a coma for a week after the operation. When she awoke, she was unable to move anything accept her eyes. I could see her trying to look around the room, eyes shifting from side to side. But she had no emotion on her face. I began to fear her doctor’s optimism was misplaced. Throughout the month she spent in intensive care, she slowly began to improve. We were all shocked and amazed when one day she reached up and scratched her nose with her left arm. Due to the trachea tube in her throat she was unable to speak and no one new if she would talk once it was taken out.

After three months in the hospital, she was released. She was able to speak, but clearly had difficulty finding the right words to convey her thoughts. She was unable to walk as her right leg was paralyzed, as was her right arm. Her short and long term memories were affected, as in the beginning she did not recognize me or our children, her father, mother or siblings. Some of her long term memory did start to return during her stay at the hospital. I will never forget our first kiss after she awoke from surgery. When I kissed her, she drew back her head as if she was being kissed by a stranger. It took a month or so before she kissed me back when I kissed her, though I’m not sure it was because she remembered me or she was comfortable with my presence, as I was always by her side. Before leaving the hospital, she did remember me, our children and her family, as well as some distant relatives and friends (I showed her a zillion photos every day).

After returning to our home on Guam, it only took a few days before I realized I was not able to care for her and she still needed a great deal of help. Though our insurance company was unwilling to fund the professional help she needed on Guam (physical therapy, speech therapy, caregiver etc) they were more than happy to pay for continued professional therapy in the Philippines. As you might imagine, medical assistance is much cheaper in the Philippines. So my wife and I returned to the Philippines and spent the next four months getting her the help she needed.

Upon arrival in the Philippines, I got us an apartment, hired a live in nurse and arranged daily physical therapy and speech therapy. During that time, my wife continued to slowly improve and I learned how to care for her. This time helped prepare me for the months and years ahead.

To learn more about how we adjusted our lives to my wife’s disabilities, please read Living With Disability – Transitioning to a New Life.

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