My wife, Goggy, called the other evening to tell me she had “the worst headache of her life, times 10” and that her friend, Sue, was going to drive her home.
“I thought you were going to yoga class.
Did you decide martinis would be more fun?” I asked.
She just hung up.
I was waiting in the driveway when they pulled up and I could see that she was obviously in pain, clutching her head with both hands. Before I could suggest the emergency room, she said, “I feel like my head is going to explode. I think I need to go to the hospital.”
I don’t know if there is a word that means the polar opposite of hypochondriac, but if there is one, there’s a picture of Goggy next to it in the dictionary. So that simple sentence simply scared the hell out of me and seconds later we were breaking the speed limit on our way to Mission Hospital, which, thankfully, is only a couple of miles from our house in Mission Viejo.
That we ended up at Mission was only the beginning of what turned out to be the most fortunate two days of our lives.
We’ve all heard emergency-room horror stories of long waits to be treated, but as soon as I told a nurse that my wife had the “worst headache of her life, times 10,” a swarm of people leapt into action and literally within a few minutes, Goggy was undergoing a CAT scan.
The symptoms were obvious—to them, certainly not to us: She most likely had a ruptured brain aneurysm and the scans would show the bleeding in the brain. An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of a blood vessel that stretches or balloons out, forming a thin-walled bubble. They most commonly occur in people ages 35 to 60 and for some unknown reason are more likely to occur in women.
The results showed no bleeding, but no one was convinced, so they did a spinal tap. I was holding Goggy’s hand when—on the sixth agonizing try—the needle found the right spot and the fluid was removed. The liquid was clear, which I figured had to be better than red or pink, and ER nurse Brigit gave me a thumbs-up from behind the doctor.
Since there was no sign of bleeding, Goggy was moved into the intensive care unit instead of undergoing emergency brain surgery and as I went through the doors to the unit, I looked up and noticed it was a neuroscience wing. I thought, “Wow, how many hospitals have an ICU dedicated just to neurology? This has to be a good thing.”
With no sign of bleeding, the frenzy of activity waned, but four different neurosurgeons stopped by to explain what they did and didn’t know and what would happen next. Goggy—it’s a nickname our granddaughter gave her when she couldn’t say “Grandma”—was scheduled to undergo both an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and an MRA (magnetic resonance angiography) around midnight.
Early the next morning, the results were in: The MRA showed that she had an aneurysm—and a large one at that—which apparently had not ruptured but possibly was beginning to leak.
We were only beginning to comprehend just how lucky we were. Goggy was doing the “downward dog” position in her Pilates class and possibly the extra pressure on the blood vessels in her brain had caused the aneurysm to enlarge, creating the excruciating headache that brought us to the hospital.
Half the people who experience those symptoms don’t live to make it to the hospital. And about two-thirds of those who do are never the same again, with a range of cognitive and physical disabilities that require years of rehabilitation … and often never improve.
Later that day, Dr. Ched I. Nwagwu saved Goggy’s life.
Using a catheter inserted through a tiny puncture in her groin, he went up through an artery in her leg and guided it alongside her heart, through the vessels in her neck and into the brain. The diagnostic angiogram was done on the latest imaging equipment—a donor’s gift to the hospital that was installed in the last few years—by one of the most skilled neurosurgeons in the country.
He called our two daughters and me into a room that looked like something out of a science fiction movie and showed us the computer-generated image of Goggy’s brain arteries and the obvious aneurysm. We gave him the go-ahead to repair it.
A few years ago, this would have required sawing off a big chunk of her skull, cutting a spot in her neck where the carotid artery could be easily controlled if something went wrong, sawing away part of the bone that holds her left eye and performing that cutting perilously close to both the optic nerve and, of course, a close-to-bursting aneurysm before clipping off the neck of the bubble.
“I’ve done it,” Dr. Nwagwu said later, “but’s it’s tricky.” (Neurosurgeons are a weird breed, all confidence and understatement, which I guess is a byproduct of dealing in a profession where, if you make a mistake, someone can die.)
This time, however, with the help of the state-of-the-art equipment at Mission Hospital and his own hand, he inserted a stent in the artery where the aneurysm was located and then inserted nine platinum coils—each resembling a six-inch piece of thread that winds up like a hose when it comes out of its holding tube—into the aneurysm to fill the sac and stop the blood flow into it.
“I knocked that one out of the park,” he said afterward. “She’ll never have to worry about it again. And I checked every vessel in her brain and there’s no sign of any other aneurysm or potential aneurysms.”
Two days later, Goggy was home, suffering from only an occasional mild and to-be-expected headache and a small puncture wound in her groin. Dr. Nwagwu told her she could go back to work the next day if she wanted to, but her three other neurosurgeons overruled him and advised at least a couple of weeks of rest and recuperation.
“This isn’t just about the physical part of this,” said Kirstin, one of six ICU nurses—thank you so, so much for your comfort and expertise, Lisa, Lynda, Tania, Laurie and Ann, too—who cared for Goggy during her stay.
“Why do you think we all love to come into this room and chat with you and your family? We spend almost all of our time consoling. There aren’t too many happy endings up here. You’re going to need time to deal with this. You’ll need to come to grips with why you were saved, why you were the lucky one.”
The tests that detect a brain aneurysm are complicated and expensive, so very few people know they have one until it’s too late. They either die or end up maybe wishing they had.
For some reason—chance? Divine intervention?—we got the greatest Christmas gift ever.
As I see it, there are two morals to this story: Cherish every day you have on this earth with the ones you love … and if anyone ever tells you they have “the worst headache of my life, times 10,” don’t ask if they’ve been drinking. Call 911.
About this column: John Weyler has lived in Orange County for almost 50 years. His weekly regional columns offer his unique, and often irreverent, take on life in the O.C.