Just a headache? Familiar symptom led to life-saving procedure

By Cathy Runyon

Who hasn’t heard it? “It’s just a headache. It will pass.”

Tonya Robinson, of Hudsonville, has learned that headaches can be a clue to a much more serious condition, and people should keep asking questions until they get answers and the treatment they need.

About two years ago, Robinson, then 36, began to notice that her head ached after her short fitness runs. Her doctor diagnosed migraines and prescribed medication.

Then, in March 2015, after running the three-mile Irish Jig race near Reeds Lake, she developed a headache so bad she was in bed for half a day. Her doctor then referred her to a neurologist.

The neurologist also diagnosed migraines, but suggested an MRI, “just in case.” The test revealed an aneurysm — a bulge in the wall of an artery — the size of a grape. Aneurysms of that size are dubbed “giant” by the medical community.

“It could have been there a long time,” Robinson said. “It was surrounded by calcium deposits, and that may have kept it in place.”

She was referred to Dr. Jay Morrow, a neurointerventional and interventional radiologist at Metro Health Hospital, who confirmed her diagnosis by performing a cerebral angiogram. He recommended she undergo a minimally invasive procedure to treat the aneurysm with the “Pipeline” embolization device. The procedure essentially creates an artery within an artery in the brain, allowing blood to bypass the aneurysm.

“Her largest aneurysm measured 26 mm,” said Morrow. “Giant aneurysms are the most life-threatening, and mortality for sufferers of untreated aneurysms is up to 68 percent at 2 years, 85 percent at 5 years.”

In May, Robinson entered Metro Health Hospital and received the procedure, but it was unsuccessful due to the position of the aneurysm in her brain. Morrow continued to study the anatomy of the aneurysm and prepare, and in July, Robinson had the procedure a second time. Not only was the giant aneurysm isolated, but in the process of treating it, doctors found three more smaller aneurysms lodged in her brain and treated them as well.

“I think I’m pretty much a walking miracle,” said Robinson.

Not that she went home to a normal life the next day. She remained in intensive care for four days, was temporarily paralyzed on her left side (she’s left handed) and had to use a walker. Several months of occupational and physical therapy lay ahead. She still had headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and depression.

“I had to re-learn everything,” said Robinson. Worst of all was her inability to care for her then 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. “I hated watching someone come every morning and pick her up for the day because I couldn’t take care of her.”

But gradually, healing has come. She now works from home. She gained some weight taking steroids, but she is beginning to exercise again and hopes to lose the weight. Her hair has grown back, and she is relieved of the constant stress of knowing something was wrong in her brain. She is looking forward to doing the things she loves – camping, hiking, reading, traveling, and best of all, playing with Sophie.

After her one-year checkup in July this year, she went with friends on a celebration trip to Traverse City. “It’s good to be back to normal and not having fear,” she said.

The life-saving surgery was also a life-changing surgery for Robinson. “I appreciate things now,” she said. “I’m alive. My faith was there before, but I wasn’t close to God. That’s changed.” She has praise for her husband, Brad, who was very supportive. She said their relationship is stronger than ever.

For those who have headaches or blurred vision, Robinson’s advice is to see a doctor, and make him or her pay attention to your complaint.