FORT THOMAS -- “Beyond frightening.” That’s how Robert White, of Fort Thomas, describes his experience with a brain aneurysm.
White was the editorial page editor of the Cincinnati Post. Now he is president of the Tri-State Brain Aneurysm Support Group, and he is telling his story to raise awareness and pass along new information that may save lives.
His story starts on a warm Saturday morning back in September 1994. White was cutting back a honeysuckle bush in the yard behind his house.
“I was lying on my back with a handsaw, and I passed out,” he said.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a haze of tree leaves hanging above him. He was dizzy and disoriented. Little did he know that he had a brain aneurysm, and it had just ruptured.
A brain aneurysm is a weak, bulging spot on the wall of a brain artery. If it ruptures, blood flows into the space around the brain. It can kill you.
“I felt weird. Just something very, very strange. My head just didn’t feel right,” said White. “I tried to stand up, and I fell over.”
Even more frightening, no one was at home to help. His wife, Mary, was out with their daughter, Anna. Their 3-year-old son, Jack, was in bed sleeping.
“I had to crawl up the hill, into my house,” he said. “I thought it was heat stroke, so I got in the shower with my clothes on. I turned on the cold water to cool down. But I didn’t feel better; I started feeling worse. “
A classic warning sign
Although he did not realize it, White had one major warning sign the night before – the worst headache of his life.
“It was like somebody reached a fist up through the back of my neck and into my brain and punched it,” he said. “That’s the classic symptom of an impending rupture. But I ignored it, went to bed, got up the next morning and felt OK.”
Doctors say aneurysms can strike without warning. Seek medical attention if you experience some or all of these symptoms:
- Sudden, severe headache
- Loss of consciousness
Sudden blurred or double vision
Sudden pain above or behind the eye
Sudden change in mental state
A blur of frightening events
Somehow, White managed to call a neighbor. And the rest of the story is a blur of scary events.
An ambulance rushed White to what was then called St. Luke Hospital-East. Doctors ran a CT scan and discovered that he had a ruptured aneurysm near the middle of his brain.
“I was in and out of consciousness. From what I remember, I was shivering a lot,” he said.
Time was critical. A helicopter transported White to Good Samaritan Hospital to prepare for surgery to stop the bleeding and save his life.
“Before surgery, I remember holding hands with Mary, scared,” he said. “I was raised Catholic, but not practicing at the time. And for whatever reason, I made a sincere act of contrition.”
If he survived, White faced the very real possibility of permanent brain damage. His aneurysm threatened a part of the brain that controls memory, personality and cognition.
The doctors warned Mary, “The guy who wakes up after surgery may not be the guy you married.”
According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, 40 percent of people who have a ruptured brain aneurysm will die. Of those who survive, 66 percent have permanent neurological deficits.
“To support my family, I had to use my brain,” said White. “I had a high visibility job. I was worried that I would be perceived as brain damaged. What would I do? So it’s terror, genuine terror, that you’re not going to be the person you used to be.”
A delicate surgical repair
In a delicate procedure, highly skilled surgeons placed three titanium clips on White’s damaged artery to seal off the ruptured brain aneurysm and stop the bleeding. During surgery, the aneurysm burst again, but doctors managed to control it.
“I woke up, thinking, ‘I survived. I can wiggle my toes. And, my God, do I have a headache!’ ”
Soon, White suffered a serious complication from brain surgery — vasospasm, a narrowing (spasm) of the artery. And with it, more intense pain.
With experimental medication and more procedures, doctors controlled the vasospasm, too.
Recovering from a ruptured brain aneurysm – one of the lucky ones
For his family and himself, White fought the side effects of his brain aneurysm.
Incredibly tired, he slept half the day. He read books, but could not tolerate TV: “It was just too much. Makes you dizzy. You get disoriented and upset.”
Riding home from the hospital was also difficult.
“I had to shut my eyes. I couldn’t process the speed of the moving car,” he said. “It was too much to handle.“
Two weeks after surgery, he went home. Six weeks after surgery, he returned to work part-time at the Cincinnati Post and wrote an editorial, “A ruptured brain artery and a new perspective on being alive.”
White said doctors were amazed by his recovery, but he stresses that he was an outlier. “Many people who suffer a ruptured brain aneurysm wind up dead or with permanent deficits.”
He has some memory issues, but he compensates well by taking meticulous notes.
Check your family history – spread the word
Today, as president of the Tri-State Brain Aneurysm Support Group, White wants to spread awareness, in the hope of saving lives.
One in 50 people in the United States will develop a brain aneurysm in his or her lifetime.
Each year, about 30,000 people have an aneurysm that ruptures.
Not all aneurysms will burst. However, certain behaviors can greatly increase your chance of a rupture:
- Cigarette smoking
- Untreated high blood pressure
- Cocaine use
Also, brain aneurysms tend to run in families. Research conducted at the University of Cincinnati and elsewhere has confirmed that there are genetic links in the formation of brain aneurysms.
“Be aware that if grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters had an aneurysm, talk to your doctor. You might be at risk,” White said.
Researchers are now investigating ways to develop screening protocols for people with family history of brain aneurysms, as well as better ways to diagnose brain aneurysms and prevent their rupture.
White’s daughter, Anna, already had her screening.
Looking back, White said he is beyond grateful for his second chance at life. He got to spend more precious time with his wife, Mary, who died of cancer last year. Among his greatest blessings, he said, is that he survived to help Mary raise their children. Jack is now an engineer. Anna is a graduate student.
“I’m incredibly lucky.”
Walk for awareness
On Sept. 24, the Tri-State Brain Aneurysm Support Group is holding the third annual Walk for Brain Aneurysm Awareness at Vine Street Park in St. Bernard. Registration begins at 9:30 a.m. The walk starts at 10:30 a.m. Registration is $10. The public is welcome. The event includes musical entertainment and food trucks.