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Mind on a mission

Woman with family history of brain aneurysms finds her calling.

Article Author: Kyle Chambers

Article Date:

photo for Mind on a mission article

Gabriela van Zuilen, 52, is no stranger to struggle.

As a child, she and her family emigrated from Argentina to the United States in search of a better life. Her mom, a single mother, raised three children while working three jobs to support the family while they embraced their new world.

“My mother gave us everything," van Zuilen said. "She went above and beyond to make sure we had food on the table and were able to fit in with other kids at school. She also taught us something that I took to heart: If we worked hard enough, there were no limits to what we could accomplish.”

Gabriela van Zuilen (right) smiles in a photo with her mother, Elena.

Van Zuilen and her siblings found success in adulthood by heeding her mother’s words. Following a fruitful operational management career, she opened her own wellness studio and began to coach and mentor others to overcome childhood trauma.

“I want to help people see the best in themselves,” she said. “That’s what I was born to do.”

Nothing can stop her from enjoying the ocean by her St. Augustine home, or the company of her husband, Robert, and sons Aaron and Sam. In the van Zuilen household, quality time with loved ones, whether at home or on an overseas adventure, comes before all else.

Van Zuilen's commitment to loved ones led her to her calling.

In the family

At 18, van Zuilen lost her 62-year-old grandmother to a ruptured brain aneurysm. Almost 20 years later, her mother also passed away at 62 from an aneurysm that burst while she was exercising. To date, van Zuilen has lost a total of four family members to the condition.

“I’ll never forget when my mother’s surgeon came out of her room when trying to save her life to let my sister and I know that we should have our brains checked because the condition can be hereditary,” she said.

Van Zuilen said her family history of brain aneurysms was a constant source of anxiety. When she started to develop severe headaches, a possible symptom of the condition, she feared something was wrong. However, each time she visited a physician to check out her concerns, her brain scans were clear.

As van Zuilen's headaches became more frequent and intense, she decided to pay a visit to Lyerly Neurosurgery at Baptist Health to find out what was going on. After self-referring to Lyerly, she met Eric Sauvageau, MD, neurosurgeon and co-medical director of the Baptist Stroke & Cerebrovascular Center, to be screened for an unruptured brain aneurysm. If Dr. Sauvageau detected an aneurysm before it ruptured, van Zuilen could avoid the same fate as her mother and other relatives.

“I’ve been carrying the fear of dying from an aneurysm around for years,” van Zuilen said. “But the moment I walked into Dr. Sauvageau’s office, I knew I was in good hands.”

Early detection

According to Dr. Sauvageau, a special magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) scan focusing on the brain’s blood vessels determined that van Zuilen may have a brain aneurysm.

“When it comes to brain aneurysms, early detection is everything,” Dr. Sauvageau said. “The condition is caused by a weak spot in one of the brain’s blood vessels and if it ruptures, it can spill blood into the surrounding area. Aneurysms can be life-threatening if they rupture, which is why it’s essential to find and seal off these blood vessels as soon as a patient reports symptoms, like experiencing ‘the worst headache of his or her life.’"

Dr. Sauvageau said van Zuilen does not require immediate intervention as has not been confirmed to have a brain aneurysm. She will continue to undergo monitoring for a definitive diagnosis and to determine treatment options, if necessary.

Van Zuilen poses for a photo with her two sons, Aaron and Sam.

Driving force

Van Zuilen was shocked to learn she may have a brain aneurysm. But the more information she learned from Dr. Sauvageau and through her own research, the more her mind was at ease.

“Dr. Sauvageau took away my fear by reassuring me that brain aneurysms are not necessarily a death sentence,” van Zuilen said. “I know what it’s like to feel alone in this journey and to be scared. I don’t want others to feel the same way. Finding support in the community is so important, and educating my community about my family’s condition is now my driving force.”

To spread awareness, van Zuilen – in collaboration with Dr. Sauvageau and Lyerly Neurosurgery – is now distributing aneurysm screening cards in and around St. Augustine to help promote brain health. The cards use the following criteria to identify individuals who are at higher risk for developing a brain aneurysm:

  • Personal history of a brain aneurysm
  • One first-degree relative with brain aneurysm (parents, children and/or siblings)
  • Two or more relatives (any degree) with brain aneurysms
  • Females who smoke, ages 30-60
  • History of fibromuscular dysplasia, polycystic kidney disease, coarctation (narrowing) of the aorta or primordial dwarfism

If you meet any of the above criteria, please discuss aneurysm screening with your primary care physician.

Van Zuilen said her goal is to make brain aneurysms a topic of conversation in her community. In time, she hopes to expand her aneurysm awareness campaign throughout the state of Florida, helping to save lives by encouraging others to not fear going to the doctor if they suspect they have the condition.

“The lessons I’ve learned since I was young have shaped my mission today," she said. "There’s no limit to how far our work can go. Together, we can save lives.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of a brain aneurysm such as a sudden, severe headache, nausea, light sensitivity or double vision, call 911 immediately. Lyerly Neurosurgery offers first-rate diagnostic and treatment operations for brain aneurysms and other cerebrovascular conditions. To request an appointment, call 904.388.6518.

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