Rocker Bret Michaels recently suffered a brain hemorrhage. He said the hemorrhage’s onset felt like “being hit in the head with a baseball bat over and over.” St. Louisan Debbie Brennan knows just how that feels.
Debbie, a 57-year-old school secretary and grandmother from Overland, had been visiting her daughter in University City on Nov. 11, 2009. When she stopped at a store on her way home, she got “the worst headache of my life.” She remained conscious just long enough to call her daughter.
The next few days are still a blur.
Debbie’s daughter called 911 and EMTs took her to Missouri Baptist’s emergency room.
“I remember the doctors saying, ‘We know exactly what’s wrong with you, but we can’t handle it here,’” she said. She was stabilized and transferred to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, a regional referral center for brain hemorrhages, also called hemorrhagic stroke. Washington University neurosurgeon Greg Zipfel, MD, was waiting for her.
Debbie found out later that an aneurysm, a weak section in an artery’s wall that balloons out, had burst in her brain.
Dr. Zipfel operated, opening Debbie’s skull and placing a tiny surgical clip around the neck of the aneurysm to keep it from bleeding again.
Then, Debbie was taken to 104ICU, the neurology/neurosurgery intensive care unit. The unit, which is unique in the Midwest, has a staff that is specially trained in the care critically ill neurology and neurosurgery patients, including hemorrhagic stroke patients, said Dr. Zipfel. This can be crucial in the days just after the stroke.
Hemorrhagic stroke patients like Debbie are vulnerable to a dangerous, possibly deadly complication called “vasospasm.”
“Hemorrhagic stroke patients, even if they have successfully been operated on, are at high risk of brain injury or even death from vasospasm for about two weeks after the stroke,” he said.
In the unit, the nurses were able to spot the earliest signs of vasospasm in Debbie and alert her doctors who intervened immediately. Testing also showed pressure building in Debbie’s skull from slow-draining cerebral fluid, another common stroke complication. Dr. Zipel operated again to implant a shunt in Debbie’s head to help with drainage.
Debbie’s case shows that complete recovery is a possibility, Dr. Zipfel said.
Despite the vasospasm and shunt, she suffered no serious deficits from her stroke. Three weeks after being admitted, she was discharged from the hospital.
Three months after the stroke, she was back at her job and playing with her grandchildren.
“I didn’t know people even survived brain hemorrhages,” she said. “I feel like I owe Dr. Zipfel and Barnes-Jewish everything.”