Karen Fifer suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm

A brain aneurysm is a bulging spot in a weakened blood vessel. A ruptured aneurysm causes bleeding into the space around the brain which can lead to stroke, brain damage and death.

Up to 5% — 3 to 5 million — Americans have or will develop a cerebral aneurysm
— American Stroke Association

‘Every day is a gift —  not a given’
Neuro-interventional surgery procedures save aneurysm patient’s life — again and again

It was Easter weekend — Good Friday, 2011 — and “a storm was brewing” inside Karen Fifer’s head.

“It hit with lightning speed,” she says. “In a matter of minutes our lives were changed.”
Karen, 58, of Haysville, was surrounded by family at her daughter Cindi’s home in Wichita, about to enjoy an outdoor meal of homemade tacos.

“Suddenly it felt like I had been hit in the head with a hammer,” she says.

Dizziness then excruciating pain set in. Karen wrapped her arms around her husband Don’s waist and “hung on for dear life.”

“Clutching at his shirt just to contain myself, all I could do was say, ‘God, oh God’ over and over,” she says.

Another of Karen’s daughters, DeAnna, a surgery tech, recognized what was happening to her mother, who was holding her head and moaning. A weak spot in a blood vessel in Karen’s head — an aneurysm — had ruptured, causing extreme pain as blood leaked into the space around her brain.

DeAnna told Cindi, “Call EMS. Something’s wrong with Mom.”

Karen says DeAnna’s quick actions “probably saved my life.”

As the family waited for help, they prayed to God to stop what was happening in Karen’s head.

When EMS workers arrived, Karen’s family chose to have her transported to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, “... because they have an excellent neurological unit,” she says.
At Via Christi, a cerebral angiogram showed a large, ruptured aneurysm on the right side of Karen’s brain. Thankfully, the bleeding had stopped and she had not suffered any loss of function.

“If the bleeding had continued, most likely I would not have lived long enough to get to a hospital,” Karen says.

According to the American Stroke Association, the chance of death from an aneurysm bleed is up to 40 percent. Of those who survive, the chance of brain damage is up to 35 percent.

Karen had a long and complicated “clipping” procedure to fix the ruptured aneurysm. Surgeons made an opening in her skull then closed off the mouth of the aneurysm with two titanium clips, preventing a dangerous “rebleed.”

She spent two weeks in the hospital’s Neurocritical Care Unit. Despite having been gravely ill, Karen recalls a bright spot.

“My family never left me, and that was very reassuring,” she says of the bedside vigil they shared.

Karen’s list of how life is richer since her near-death experience:

• Every day is a gift — not a given. I live by this statement and will never take it for granted again.

• I give glory to God any time someone asks me about my experience.

• I thank my doctors and nurses for their excellent care when I see them.

• I still have a strong independent streak.  I think God made me stubborn for such a time as this. It served me well in recovery for more was yet to come.

• I am quieter.

• I write myself reminder notes to overcome some short-term memory problems.

• I don’t drive as fast.

• I tell people I love them more often and give more hugs.

• I spend time with people more. 

• I pray and read my Bible more.

• I am more patient.

• I used to complain abot my hair all the time, now I am thankful to have some!

• I don’t drink caffeine. 

• I make time for sweets!

Reading the Bible is one of the joys Karen Fifer makes more time for since a ruptured brain aneurysm nearly took her life. She lives by the statement, “Every day is a gift — not a given.”

Karen was dismissed on Mother’s Day. She recalls that while recovering at home she was sometimes exhausted, overwhelmed and emotional, but she also was hopeful.
“I don’t think I ever got depressed nor did I cry — there was no need,” Karen says. “I felt so blessed to be alive ... I woke up each day with a heart full of gratitude.”

Less than four months later, during a post-surgery checkup, regrowth of the aneurysm was discovered.

“I just couldn’t believe this was happening again so soon,” says Karen. “I was very scared.”

Images from a follow-up angiogram performed by Kumar Reddy, MD, medical director of Interventional Radiology for Via Christi, confirmed a longitudinal tear in the blood vessel. This meant that instead of the usual “saccular” berry-like bulge, Karen’s was a rare “dissecting aneurysm” where the entire artery was weak.

“Imagine the wall of a blood vessel being flimsy like wet tissue paper — it just falls apart,” says Reddy. “Probably less than 5 percent of all aneurysms are dissecting. Mortality rates are significantly higher because they’re more difficult to treat and once treated, they tend to recur more frequently.”

Karen received specialized treatment from inside the blood vessel, a procedure called “coiling.” Outside of Kansas City, Via Christi is the only hospital in Kansas to offer aneurysm coiling capabilities and other neuro-interventional procedures around the clock, 365 days a year.

Using X-ray guidance, Reddy threaded a tiny catheter through blood vessels from Karen’s groin up to the aneurysm. He performed a highly complex placement of a double-layered stent to give structural support to the artery. He then fed flexible platinum coils into the aneurysm sac to pack it tightly in order to keep blood from entering and therefore prevent bleeding.

“Dr. Reddy and the angio team saved my life numerous times,” says Karen, who was treated twice more with stents and coils to stabilize growth of the dissecting aneurysm, and two times for mini strokes as recently as August of this year.

A follow-up angiogram in late August showed no aneurysm regrowth and “effectively a cure,” Reddy says.

“I am a testimony of excellent care and treatments by Via Christi. I have no neurological deficits, which I contribute to the healing hand of a loving God and the excellent care given by my doctors and nurses.

“My life is forever changed,” says Karen. “Being close to death has made me more alive.”



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