Survivor Stories

I Am Not Alone

by Sheryl Baker

I am a 52-year-old survivor of a ruptured brain aneurysm. I would appreciate sharing my story with you in hopes that you will feel it inspiring enough to share with your family and friends.

It was Monday, May 27th, 2007. My husband, Rick and I were camping at Steamboat Rock State Park in Washington State. We had spent a glorious Memorial Day weekend with lots of friends. Rick and I had enjoyed the prior day riding our motorcycles with another couple, in a very remote part of Eastern Washington. That Monday morning we woke up early to winds and looming rain clouds in the distance. We decided to take the jet ski out of the water before the rains came, and before the boat ramp got busy with other campers doing the same.

Rick walked me down to the lakeshore and watched me jump on the jet ski to head out into the water. There were no other boats out on the lake yet, but I wasn’t worried, as I had done this hundreds of times in the past by myself. I waved goodbye as Rick walked back up the hill where our motorhome was with the jet-ski trailer attached. As he started his drive to the boat ramp I eased the jet ski through the no wake zone and then gave it gas to get it up on a plane. I had a 10-minute ride to the pier where I knew Rick would be waiting on the boat ramp. Just as I hit the throttle, a huge wave from nowhere slammed me in the face and all down the front of me. It was cold, but not nearly as cold as the thunderous headache that immediately followed. I still had the longest part of the ride facing me. I knew I was in trouble, but I could not focus on what was happening.

A few minutes later I awoke sitting in the lake on the boat ramp. How did I get there and why was my head still pounding? Rick was telling me that help was on the way. Apparently, after getting hit by the wave, I continued on my way. I have no memory of this. The route was due north, then a sharp turn into another no wake zone at the boat ramp. Rick said he was standing on the dock watching for me. Finally I appeared, but he said I was coming into the no-wake zone too fast. As I approached closer he said my eyes were “blank” and he knew something was wrong. A few feet from the pier I fell off the jet ski backwards into the water. Rick came into the water to pull me to shore. When I regained consciousness he told me help was on the way, an ambulance had been called.

I was taken to a small hospital in Grand Coulee, WA. A CT scan revealed blood on the brain, but the origin was unknown. The emergency room doctor suspected a ruptured aneurysm. A brain aneurysm is a weak, bulging spot on the side of a brain artery, like a thin balloon. When this ruptures it causes the blood to be released into the head. The result of a ruptured brain aneurysm can lead to brain damage, paralysis, or in some cases death. I feel so very blessed to have had Dr. Schnyder on call at the hospital that day. His recommendation was to fly me to Sacred Heart, a larger hospital in Spokane. The winds were too high to send me by helicopter, so the decision was made to medivac me by airplane. I did not remember being at this hospital until months later when I returned to give my thanks to Dr. Schnyder. I do have a vague memory of being put on a plane, but no memory of the flight or of my arrival at the next hospital.

When I finally came to, my son was standing at the foot of my bed. I remember wondering if I had died, and if so, why was Jeremy here? Oh wait, Lindsey, Jeremy’s fiancée, is here too. They both live in Maryland, but why were they here? It was all so confusing. Rick was there also, and once again reassured me that all was going to be fine. I attempted to wipe the hair out of my eyes, but my hands would not budge. It was then that I heard for the first time that I had three brain aneurysms and one had ruptured while I was on the lake. I was also told that I had surgery and then suffered a stroke. Dr. Hirschauer, a neurosurgeon, had met with Rick upon my arrival. After confirming there were three aneurysms, he recommended that I have each aneurysm coiled. Another specialist, Dr. Zylak was called in to perform the procedure. There are only two radiologists in the state of Washington who do aneurysm coiling, and I happened to be at a hospital where one of them was on staff. The coiling procedure consists of having a tiny catheter threaded from the groin upward into the brain artery and then into the aneurysm. A small platinum wire (the size of thread) is fed through the catheter and forms a ‘yarn ball’ in the aneurysm to seal off the blood flow. My surgery was successful, but I suffered from a vasospasm, and then apparently a stroke on my way to ICU. A neurologist, Dr. Geraghty was on call, and I am so thankful to have received the wonderful skills that each of these Doctors possess. I truly feel blessed to have had this dream team caring for me.

I spent a month in Spokane at both the hospital and then at a rehabilitation facility. I remember lying at night during my stay at the hospital and wondering why I was still alive. I knew the answer; God has bigger plans for me on this earth. I still have something to do. Over the next month I continued to ask him what it was that He wanted me to accomplish. One of my dear friends told me to quit asking, as He would lead me in the right direction. I would soon find that out. I am also extremely thankful to be surrounded by a wonderful family and the best circle of friends ever possible! They were there with me every step of the way. When you marry someone, you just always expect him or her to stand by you, you know, “for better, for worse, for sickness and in health…” Rick never let me down. He kept my spirits high and watched out for me when I wasn’t able to. Jeremy and Lindsey returned to the East Coast, and their upcoming wedding was the inspiration for my commitment to recovery. My parents who are strong in their faith put out prayer requests for my healing. My sister put her life on hold to be with me and aid in my recovery. I was encouraged by my many countless friends and family members who made the 12-hour road trips to see me. I can’t express in words my gratitude for their love and prayers for my recovery. My survival is nothing less than a miracle.

The week following my surgery, Rick was invited to attend a lecture that Dr. Zylak was giving about coiling procedure of brain aneurysms. Rick has since presented three brain aneurysm awareness classes at his workplace, the submarine base in Silverdale. His Power Point presentation is a short class to share our experience with fellow workers. Our mission is to raise awareness and hopefully prevent brain aneurysm ruptures and the difficulties associated with them. One of the supervisors who attended Rick’s class shared the information with another co-worker who had been having extreme headaches. She explained to the co-worker my story, and suggested that she be tested for an aneurysm. The co-worker contacted her insurance company for approval to have an MRI. While waiting for the approval she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. She had a coiling procedure done, and I am happy to say that she is doing well. We need to get the message out!

On August 22, Rick and I were on our way to visit my parents. Rick drove by a parked car along side the highway. As he drove by, I looked back and saw a man lying in the gravel on the other side of the car. Rick quickly turned around and went to help him. I phoned 911 as Rick was trying to get a response from the man. Rick couldn’t feel a pulse and started CPR. I was still too weak to help Rick in the resuscitation therefore I flagged down a passing motorist to assist him. Paramedics arrived and took over the resuscitation. We left and continued to my parents. I stayed awake most of that night, praying for this man. Four days later I telephoned the newspaper and inquired as to any info that they might have about the incident. The editor told me that he knew the man, Rich Oien, and he had been airlifted to Harborview Hospital in Seattle. The editor asked for my name and number, and he forwarded it on to Rich’s family. About 30 minutes later I received a call from Rich’s brother, Conrad. I was told that Rich had passed away the following day and the family had the opportunity to say goodbye to him thanks to my husband. I asked if he had suffered a heart attack, to which Conrad replied “no”, Rich had died from a brain aneurysm. I was beginning to know my purpose for living.

My dear friend Julie, who happened to be the friend who told me to quit seeking my purpose here on earth, lost her mom in October… to a ruptured brain aneurysm. I had never known anyone who had a brain aneurysm before and now my life has become engulfed with brain aneurysm events. I don’t believe in coincidences. I think there is a purpose for everything. I know that God is calling on me to raise awareness for brain aneurysms.

I am not alone. God was with me on the jet ski. I am not alone. I have the best support group of family and friends. I am not alone. There are many people that are unaware who have brain aneurysms. I am not alone. Together we all must stand up to bring awareness to this cause.

I want to make a difference. I will make a difference. And so, I’m sharing my story with you, in hopes that you will pass it and the following information to people you know and love.

The following facts have been provided by the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. Their web address is www.bafound.org.

Brain Aneurysm Statistics:

  • An estimated 6 million people in the USA have an unruptured brain aneurysm. That is about 1 in 50 people.
  • About 40% of people who have a ruptured brain aneurysm will die as a result.
  • 4 out of 7 people who recover from a ruptured brain aneurysm will have disabilities.
  • Brain aneurysms are most prevalent in people ages 35-60 but can occur in children as well. 
  • Women, more than men, suffer from brain aneurysms at a ratio of 3:2. 
  • Ruptured brain aneurysms account for 3 – 5% of all new strokes.

Warning Signs:

  • Cranial nerve palsy
  • Dilated pupil
  • Double Vision
  • Pain above and behind the eye
  • Localized headache
  • Drooping eyelid

Detection methods:

CT Scan (Computed Tomography)
This scan takes a picture of your brain. It is a fast and painless test, which requires you to lie on your back, very still, while you are pushed into a large, tubular machine that creates the images. This test shows whether any blood has leaked around or into the brain.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
An MRI is a safe, painless diagnostic scan that examines various areas of your body, in this case, your head. Through the use of a large doughnut-shaped magnet and a computer, magnetic signals are seen through a computer as radio waves. The computer is able to transform these radio waves into images. An MRI helps locate the aneurysm.

MRA (Magnetic Resonance Angiography)
This scan combines a regular MRI with the contrast dye, which is injected into a major vein. Like the CTA, this dye travels to the brain arteries, and images are created using an MRI. This creates a more enhanced image.

Angiogram (Arteriogram)
This test allows doctors to see the size, shape, and location of the aneurysm, as well as reveal any bleeding or vasospasm. A small incision is made on one side, or both sides, of your groin after it is locally numbed and prepped. Then, a thin tube (catheter) is threaded through arteries from the groin to the neck. A contrast dye is injected and travels to the brain arteries, X-rays are taken, showing all your arteries and any abnormalities, such as an aneurysm.

And how am I doing now? Well I’m pleased to say that I am still progressing in my recovery. I have a slight paralysis in my left hand and a continuous low grade headache. At times it gets more severe, but I’m on new medication that the doctors are hoping will help. Stress seems to make it worse, so I’m now on a stress-free diet. My cognitive skills are still somewhat slow, but I’m coping with it. I continue to make the 12-hour round trip to Spokane to see the doctors and their associates who first treated me. I have so much confidence in them. I am asking for your help in educating people about brain aneurysms. Let’s get the word out. We need to have more awareness and more research that will lead to early detection. As this, is the key for better treatment and better recovery. Thank you for allowing me to share my story.

Fondly,

Sheryl Baker
P.O. Box 3371
Silverdale, WA 98383