Dan, an orthopedic surgeon, dismissed the idea and, eventually, so did Sarah.
Around 5 that evening, Sarah, 37 at the time, collapsed on the couple’s deck at their Sullivan County home. Suddenly deaf, she made her way inside and yelled for Dan, who called 911. She had two aneurysms, both ruptured. In attempt to save her life, doctors performed a surgical procedure called coiling, but the effects were disastrous. During surgery, Sarah had a cerebellar stroke.
In “Changing Landscapes — My New Normal. A True Story of Struggle and Adjustment after Surviving a Ruptured Aneurysm” (Lulu Publishing Services; 2013), Sarah tells her story and reflects on the challenges, frustrations and victories she has experienced as she has navigated through two life-threatening traumatic brain injuries.
Sarah grew up in Connecticut and attended college in Ohio, where she met Dan. They moved to Pennsylvania for Dan to attend medical school, got married and lived there for 10 years. Sarah worked as the director of a life skills program while she earned her master’s degree in counseling.
It was very important for her, she wrote in “Changing Landscapes,” to advocate for the people she served — people who faced developmental and emotional difficulties — and treat them with dignity. Little did she know at the time, those tables would be turned and she would be the patient.
In Pennsylvania, Sarah began experiencing severe neck pain, and she chalked it up to stress. Dan suggests now that the aneurysms might have been growing at that point.
The couple eventually moved to Northeast Tennessee, and Sarah settled in as a doctor’s wife and became a certified ghost hunter. She developed terrible headaches and began to sense that something was about to happen. She remembers collapsing on their deck and being transported to a local emergency room. At the hospital, she started vomiting. She doesn’t remember anything beyond that.
Dan remembers calling 911, but said he didn’t connect the dots and doesn’t remember what he was processing at the time.
“I was hoping it was a migraine, but when she got sick, I knew it was something else,” he said.
Because Sarah’s brain was swelling dangerously, she was flown to the University of Virginia Center for Neurological Injuries in Charlottesville. She was comatose. At U.Va., neurosurgeons noted that an aneurysm occurring in the brain stem region was extremely rare, particularly in someone Sarah’s age.
“Once we got to U.Va., they asked me if she had been sick, or had traveled to certain areas of the world, because of the type of aneurysm,” Dan said, explaining that doctors thought she might have picked up a virus during travel abroad.
There are two ways to treat both ruptured and unruptured aneurysms — surgical clipping and coiling — and surgeons decided to coil hers. During a coil embolization, a small tube is inserted into the affected artery and positioned near the aneurysm.
Tiny metal coils are then moved through the tube into the aneurysm, relieving pressure on the aneurysm and making it less likely to rupture. There is a risk of stroke with coiling, Sarah said, and that’s what happened. The stroke impacted her left side the worst.
She spent several weeks in the intensive care unit for brain injuries, but doesn’t remember much.
She does remember thinking she was on board the Titanic in Australia. She began speaking in French, and she introduced her brother Matt to the nurses as her only black brother (her family is Caucasian). She had to relearn how to sit up, talk, walk, eat, swallow and control her breathing.
She was transferred to a brain and spinal cord injury center, where she stayed for almost a month. She could not walk. She was blind. Her speech was garbled, and she couldn’t hear well.
“I was made to feel like I was insane and incompetent,” she wrote in “Changing Landscapes.” “No one believed anything I said. I felt like a prisoner in solitary confinement, yet I had done nothing wrong.”
Sarah recounts in detail the abuse she endured at the rehabilitation center, and writes in the book that she can’t let go of that chapter of her life. Today, however, she says she’s in a much better place.
“I don’t think a lot [about it],” she said. ‘My outlook is so much better now.”
Sarah came home to a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments, brain scans, sensory tests and surgeries, mostly on her eyes. She had physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. She also developed a penchant for cursing and for sweets, both of which have diminished some now.
“She can still let it go. It was a sailor for awhile,” Dan said.
Because of her sweet tooth, something she didn’t have before, their home was filled with cupcakes and jelly beans.
“There was nothing but sugar going in,” he said.
Post-aneurysms and stroke, Sarah has lost the ability to cry.
“She doesn't like it now for people to cry in front of her because she, as of now, cannot cry. She didn't cry when we lost our two dogs of 14 years, and they were our babies,” Dan said.
She is resuming physical therapy after a bit of a break, and her immediate goals are to relearn to drive and be able to exercise. She takes voice lessons on Skype to improve her rate and tone, and she does Kundalini yoga.
She began writing of her experiences as a way to help her family understand her limitations.
“A large group of my family was traveling to Italy last summer and I wanted to give them a clear picture of what I was experiencing, but then I realized that this could help a wider audience,” she said. “It is important to understand
that one should not judge based on outer appearance. I am a mess outside, but cognitively, I am just who I was.”
Someone had suggested to Sarah that writing might be therapeutic, and she has found that typing makes it a bit easier to convey her feelings.
“I also read quite a bit of literature and found that people seemed to write years and years into recovery and that is a much different perspective. This story began to form one year after my injury, and I never want to forget my feelings at that time, which included anger, frustration and depression.”
Through it all, Sarah has discovered that she is stronger than she thought.
“A lot of people say I’m so inspiring to them. Believe me, if I didn’t have to go through it, I wouldn’t. I don’t have a choice. I learned more quickly how life changes and can be turned on its side,” she said.
“She’s incredibly strong and admirable, inspirational, motivational,” Dan said. “Her heart is so huge going through this. Her first thought was always, ‘What can I do to help everybody else?’ Not being able to see and walk and hear, her first thoughts were of everybody else.”
“Changing Landscapes — My New Normal” is available at www.lulu.com in softcover ($16), hardcover ($32) and e-book ($9). It’s also available by visiting www.changinglandscapes-mynewnormal.com.