Surviving a Brain Aneurysm: One Survivor Shares Her Inspiring Story

Julie Workman was just hours away from suffering a potentially fatal brain aneurysm rupture when experts at Indiana University Health performed the surgery that would save her life.

Julie Workman doesn’t remember much about June 4, 2012. She knows she was at her son’s baseball game, and that she stood to cheer when he hit what seemed like a surefire home run. She felt a little dizzy, so she steadied herself by holding onto the fence in front of her seat. When her son reached second base (the hit turned out to be a double), Workman gave him a thumbs-up. After that, things got hazy.

“I guess I didn’t sit back down very gracefully, because suddenly everyone was fussing over me and talking about calling an ambulance,” Workman says. Her seatmate—a friend who happened to be a nurse—performed some tests on Workman while they waited for paramedics. “She asked me to turn my head, which made my neck hurt really badly,” she says. “I just remember thinking ‘This is not right.’” An ambulance took Workman to a nearby hospital, where a CT scan of her brain revealed two aneurysms—one of which was leaking and required immediate treatment to avoid a potentially fatal rupture.

Workman was already familiar with brain aneurysms—her mother had been successfully treated for one in 1991. These balloon-like bulges in the arteries can be caused by a variety of factors, such as smoking, hypertension, and traumatic head injuries—and they can also be genetic. In fact, Workman had a CT scan after her mother’s treatment to make sure she didn’t have any (she didn’t.) “Unfortunately, I had no idea I had to keep getting scanned regularly,” says Workman. Early detection is key because aneurysms are usually asymptomatic until they rupture—an event that only about 60 percent of sufferers survive.

Workman was quickly transferred to Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine at Indiana University Health, where she was cared for by Mitesh Shah, MD, a neurosurgeon who specializes in the treatment of aneurysms. Though the leaking had stopped, Workman was by no means in the clear (“I learned later that most leaking aneurysms will rupture within 48 hours”), and was wheeled into the operating room in a matter of hours. Dr. Shah treated the aneurysm with a procedure called surgical clipping: a tiny clip is placed at the base of the aneurysm to prevent blood from entering it, which can prevent a rupture and cause the aneurysm to shrink.

The operation went well, but there was a downside: Workman would require another surgery to repair the other aneurysm. “They were located on opposite sides of my head, and you can’t open up that much of the skull at one time,” she says. She recalls the month between the surgeries as particularly nerve-wracking. “I felt like I had a ticking time bomb in my brain,” she says.

Thankfully, the second surgery was also a success, though Workman has had to endure some lasting effects. She can no longer smell or taste (“The only thing I can taste is salt, so I put a lot of salt on everything”) and she’s developed other health issues that may be related to the aneurysms, such as bladder problems, weight gain, and arthritis. She credits Goodman Campbell’s brain aneurysm survivor support group for helping her cope with these frustrations. “It was such a relief just to be in a room with people who knew what I was going through,” she says.

Today, Workman is busy trying to raise public awareness of aneurysms. With the help of Senator Patricia Miller, she’s had September declared Brain Aneurysm Awareness Month in Indiana for the past three years (the proclamation has to be renewed annually). She and her parents travel to Washington, DC, every year on Lobby Day to encourage Congress to support funding for aneurysm research. “I never want anyone to experience what I went through,” says Workman.

-- By Jessica Brown

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